Make a Game Out of Learning But don’t gamify it.

7 04 2015


Teachers predominantly use games as rewards or reinforcement, rather than starting points for learning.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Brad Flickinger/Flickr.

In MIT’s Education Arcade, classic game consoles line the office corridor; rafters are strung with holiday lights; and inflatable, stuffed, and papier-mâché creatures lurk around every corner. When I stopped by recently, the arcade’s director, Eric Klopfer, and creative director, Scot Osterweil, talked enthusiastically about the surging interest in educational video games, now used by nearly three-quarters of America’s grade-school teachers, according to one survey.

But these optimistic, play-loving game gurus have come to despise the biggest buzzword in their field: gamification. According to Osterweil and Klopfer, both MIT professors, gamification too often means “making a game out of learning,” in which players win points, magical powers, or some other reward for practicing math, spelling, or another school subject. Klopfer and Osterweil argue that the best educational games capture what’s already fun about learning and make that central to the game. Gamification undermines what they see as the real opportunity for games to radically, albeit playfully, transform education.

The arcade, part of MIT’s Scheller Teacher Education Program, partners with schools, gaming companies, and nonprofits to make educational video games. The staff also trains teachers to make their own games and to weave them into lesson plans, via on-campus courses and a new massive open online course, “Design and Development of Games for Learning,” that launches Wednesday.

“If somebody comes to me and says, ‘I want to make math fun,’ I don’t want to work with that person,” said Osterweil, “because they don’t think math is already fun.”

In gamified math, equations are often wedged into high-energy video worlds with wacky characters, points and player rankings, and maybe some explosions. It’s a model used by many popular educational games, such as Math Blaster, which has sold millions of copies and been reissued several times since it was introduced in 1983.

In Math Blaster, players fly space ships while math problems appear on the ships’ consoles and numbered asteroids hurtle toward them. If a console reads “15 – 7 = ?” and the ship’s laser guns fire at asteroid 5, nothing happens, except a red cabin light flashes to indicate a mistake. When correctly aimed at asteroid 8, the guns blast it out of the sky. Osterweil and Klopfer call games like this “drill and practice,” or “shooting flashcards.”

“This game isn’t telling you why you got a problem right or wrong or asking you to think about what arithmetic is,” Osterweil said in a video in their new MOOC. “If you’re good at arithmetic, Math Blaster’s fun, because it reinforces that you’re good at math. If you’re not understanding arithmetic, you’re getting nowhere with this.”

Back in the arcade offices, Klopfer said games that “make math fun” typically don’t require players to use math in any real sense. Instead, he said, “it’s ‘do some math so you get to shoot some asteroids.’ ”

Whenever the arcade team brainstorms a game, by contrast, it starts by finding people who are passionate about math, history, science, or any other subject and asks what drives and engages them.

“Maybe they love solving puzzles with math or experimenting with science,” said Klopfer. “Maybe they like how understanding math and science make the world seem different, or more comprehensible. Tap into that thing people already find interesting, and enhance it in the game.”

For instance, Education Arcade is now piloting The Radix Endeavor, a free, multiplayer online game designed to supplement high school math and science lessons. Based on conversations with working scientists and engineers, the game has players explore a fictional world called Ysola that’s ruled by evil, science-hoarding overlords called the Obfuscati. Players encounter Ysola’s beleaguered citizenry and embark on various quests while evading the Obfuscati, such as finding a cure for a deadly disease or using math to reinforce dangerously weak buildings.

“It’s not about solving this math problem, so you get a magic wand that can make this building stronger,” said Klopfer. “It’s figuring out how to learn the math, so you can use that understanding to keep the building from collapsing.”

A few years ago, Osterweil distilled what he calls the “four freedoms of play,” including freedom to experiment, freedom to fail, freedom to assume different identities, and freedom of effort (meaning the ability to mix full-throttle effort with periods of relaxation and disengagement). For Osterweil, these freedoms are about more than good game design.

“I argue that real learning happens in moments of playful exploration,” he said, “and all those freedoms should be present.”

Schools overemphasize the learning of facts and formulas, as well as the right answers for standardized tests, he said. Rather than changing that educational model, “bad ideas like gamification replicate it.”

The problem isn’t just the drill-and-practice design of many games, according to Klopfer. It’s also that teachers predominantly use games as rewards or reinforcement, rather than starting points for learning.

“The game should be an experience, where kids get to explore and problem-solve,” Klopfer said. “Then a teacher or a peer can help them make the connection between the game experience and concepts that can be generally applied.”

Along with games, the Education Arcade creates optional lesson plans, online forums, blogs, and one-day teacher training sessions, all to help bridge game learning with other classroom instruction.

Mark Knapp was teaching biology in the Boston public schools in 2012 when he heard about the Education Arcade’s plans for Radix and volunteered to be one of the teachers who helped with the game’s development. Knapp said Radix isn’t a substitute for the science curriculum he covers. What the game does do, he said, “is get kids interested in how scientist think and solve problems.” Since 2014, Knapp has been teaching kids with special needs in grades six through 12, and continues to useRadix in class.

“There are so many little skills, like dealing with frustration, that these kids are also getting from this game,” he said. “I can see kids becoming less frustrated with stuff they don’t understand. That’s really important for any student.”

Klopfer doesn’t think games should be the only way kids learn in school. “There are lots of other things to do in school: dialogues with peers, solving problems, building things. Sometimes, even lectures are helpful,” he said. “But there are aspects of good games that work well in school, even if they’re not part of a game.”

“I agree,” said Osterweil. “There should still be rigor, and kids should be guided to explore topics they may not have known they were interested in. But, learning should still be damn near all play, all the time.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Blended Learning.

The Genius Of Raising Brilliant Kids: A Conversation With Jack Andraka’s Parents

19 03 2015

Jack Andraka at The White House

He’s just an everyday kid, 16 year-old Jack Andraka

He’s the son of an engineer and anesthetist who has vaulted his way onto the main stage of science and innovation. Jack’s work on developing a rapid, highly sensitive and inexpensive test for cancer has made headlines around the world. I interviewed Jack in Feburary and Forbes editor Bruce Upbin profiled his innovations in June 2012. Over the past few months Jack has traveled the world, rubbing shoulders with political and scientific dignitaries at such distinguished places such as TED Conferences, The Royal Society of Medicine in London and even The White House.

But with all the news and excitement about Jack’s scientific achievement, I was interested in learning what really drove him and more about two of the proudest people on the planet–his parents, Steve and Jane Andraka. As it turns out, this story isn’t only about Jack (and his parents). But about the entire family and how Steve and Jane raised two remarkable boys. While Jack has taken the spotlight recently, his older brother Luke has made quite a name for himself. Luke, 18 years old, was the 4th place national winner of the SSP middle school science competition, MIT Think Award winner, 2 time Intel science fair finalist and winner of the $96,000 Sierra Nevada Scholarship at the Intel science fair for his method of treating acid mine drainage.

The Andraka children seemed to be on to something. And that something apparently hinged, in part, upon one key insight from Steve Andraka, ”Teach your kids that most problems in this world are really opportunities in disguise, and innovation comes from discontent.”
Another Andraka family adventure

I had the chance to speak with Mr. and Mrs. Andraka and found the entire conversation fascinating and enlightening. They broke down their success into two sections–logical and practical. So, moms and dads, here you go…

The ‘theory’ of raising brilliant kids

Independent learning. I almost always have them learn by doing and by making controlled mistakes. And in the process, they think through the problem. When they are stuck on a problem I come over and make them show me what they have done and most of the time they find their problem by just explaining to me what they have done. By explaining things, it makes them think deeper about it and this works with almost all of their problems.

A single-minded focus. Focusing on a particular project is very important in achieving higher goals. When you focus just on a specific goal or problem and ‘wrap your head around the goal’ it opens up all kinds of creativity and problem solving. It’s amazing when a child goes from a feeling of powerlessness to one of mastery.

Engage in your child’s project–even if it’s over your head. Both our children have eclipsed us in knowledge on specific topics and also with their mathematical skills. However growing up they have always known Dad to be the one who can help them with their Math. So, I follow along, ask questions and let the textbook guide some of our discussions. Essentially, I give support, show interest and direct them to use other resources. However, I always try to follow up with them and have them explain their progress. I found that showing an interest by listening, asking questions, encouraging research and reporting back teaches them to solve their questions, encourages them and teaches me something too. When the roles are reversed–I become the student and my child becomes the teacher–I know it’s a success.

Limit rules, encourage independence. We have ‘minimal rules’, but nothing that stifles creativity. Basically, you can sum it up simply: treat people with respect, do your homework be honest and try to be safe. Having too many rules burdens down the entire family and limits thinking.

The ‘practice’ of raising brilliant kids

Theory is fine for the text books. But Steve and Jane offered up some ‘rules to live by’ to help guide every mom and dad that wants to have their child to end up speaking or living in The White House.

Have your child do the thinking, limit how much you do for them in solving a problem. If you are the person wrapping your head around the problem and solving it, your child isn’t.

Ask as many questions as they ask you. With the wealth of knowledge on the internet have them start looking up answers and doing research.

Get them involved with the right peer activities. If they have a competitive side, encourage them to compete on math team or debate team or art competitions. Winning in these type things boosts self esteem. Also, see what other higher level competitions exist. Often, the school may not even know about these other competition. Remember, you are you child’s best advocate and resource. Don’t wait for the school to present your child with opportunities

Model the result you want.

Build things and be creative! It’s not all crunching numbers.
Be involved and stay connected. Every day we ask our children what they did in school.

We also use the parent connect tool to always know how they are doing and to say on top of issues and challenges.
Set early expectations. Our kids know that they are going to college. They have known this since they were in elementary school. We have bookcases of college guides, books on best colleges, how to get in certain schools and other information. It’s a process that starts early.
Success needs to be a shared goal–shared by the family and celebrated by the family. If your child is finding success in an area that you may not be familiar with, you still must encourage and support them. Success brings confidence and your support means everything.
Live outside the box. Petty rules stifle creativity. You can tell you child to think outside of the box, but if you have boxed them in their entire life, they have no creative reference point to begin with.
Teach your kids that most problems in this world are really opportunities in disguise. Innovation comes from discontent. Start when your child is young and keep a list of problems to be pondered or solved. Then, when it is time to do a science fair or other project, you’re ready to go! That’s been very successful for both our children.

Unlocking the genius within?

It seems obvious to me that empowerment is central to this family. Throughout their lives, Jack and Luke’s parents provided the tools needed to unleash their creative potential. This was done, step by step, methodically – yet never in a stifling way. They provided the resources and their children stepped up to the challenge and discovered a worthy purpose. We are now all the beneficiaries of the Andrakas’ excellence in parenting – and for their impact on the world of science and medicine.

To date, Jack and Luke show no sign of slowing down! Jack is a sophomore at North county High school, however he has been spending a lot of time out of school with speaking engagements and working on his next project. Jack is very self disciplined and has been able to self study most of the material that he would be doing in the class room and keep up with the homework. He then takes the tests when he is in school. Jack is reviewing his options for finishing his high school and is being courted by colleges. Luke is a senior at North County High School, and will be graduated this June. He has been accepted by Virginia Tech in their engineering program where he plans to pursue a degree in materials engineering.

Who Wants to Know? Use Student Questions to Drive Learning

13 01 2015



Martin Luther King, Jr. considered this to be life’s most persistent and urgent question: “What are you doing for others?” As we approach the holiday that honors his legacy, here’s another question worth pondering: How many of your students know how to ask persistent and urgent questions of their own?

Knowing how to formulate a good question — and having the courage to ask it — is a skill with profound social justice implications. Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, founders of the Right Question Institute, first became interested in questioning techniques when they were working with parents in a low-income community. Parents told them they didn’t participate in their children’s education because they didn’t know what to ask.

That was more than 20 years ago. By now, Rothstein and Santana have taught question-formulation techniques everywhere from homeless shelters to adult literacy classes to community health centers. Patients take a more active role in their own care, it turns out, when they know how to ask doctors better questions. And people who have felt disenfranchised because of language barriers or low literacy levels can reengage as citizens by learning how to ask questions that matter to them.

In their important and accessible book, Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions, the co-authors outline a simple but powerful approach to put classroom questions where they belong: with students. Instead of organizing learning around teachers’ questions, they suggest letting students’ questions drive the learning experience. For many students, this means reconnecting with their innate sense of curiosity and wonder about the world.

The co-authors’ Question Formulation Technique is appropriate for any classroom. It unfolds in four steps, typically carried out in small groups of students and in response to a specific focus that the teacher has introduced:

  1. Ask as many questions as you can.
  2. Do not stop to judge, discuss, edit, or answer any question.
  3. Write down every question exactly as it was asked.
  4. Change any statements into questions.

In a recent article for Education Leadership, “The Right Answers,” Rothstein and Santana describe teachers using their technique to rekindle curiosity in classrooms ranging from elementary to high school, and in subjects as diverse as math, science, and social studies.

I’d argue that their approach belongs in the toolkit of any teacher implementing project-based learning. Inquiry is supposed to provide the oxygen for PBL. By starting with questions that students want to answer, PBL creates a need to know. When projects work well, that authentic inquiry is what delivers higher levels of engagement and puts students on the path to deeper learning.

But what if students don’t exhibit a strong “need to know” in response to an entry event or driving question? What if they don’t launch into a project with a host of questions that they are burning to answer? What if that supposedly captivating driving question is met with….silence?

The problem might be that the project focus doesn’t connect with students’ interests. Or, it might have to do with students forgetting what it means to be an active learner. If their prior experience in school has been passive, if their previous experience with questions has been limited to responding to what teachers ask, they may need a refresher course in curiosity.

Along with the excellent resources from Rothstein and Santana, you can learn more about questioning strategies in A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. Author Warren Berger shows how artful questioning leads to better thinking in a range of endeavors, from business to social activism. On an accompanying blog, Berger posts“beautiful questions” posed by readers.

Recent examples that might get your students talking (and questioning): What if pizza was good for you? Why can’t the classroom be a coffee shop? What would happen if teenagers believed they deeply mattered to the world around them? As a quick write or warm-up for a PBL experience, you might have students submit their own beautiful questions to the author.

As students get more confident asking questions in class, they’ll be better prepared to take their questioning attitude into the world. PBL often creates opportunities for students to engage with community members and experts. Make sure students know how to frame those conversations with the questions that they care about answering.

How do you encourage students to ask questions that matter to them? Please share your strategies in the comments section below.

Strategies for Getting and Keeping the Brain’s Attention

12 01 2015


JANUARY 6, 2015

Editor’s Note: This post is co-authored by Marcus Conyers who, with Donna Wilson, is co-developer of the M.S. and Ed.S. Brain-Based Teaching degree programs at Nova Southeastern University.

The human brain has an amazing capacity to wield a potent cognitive strategy: selective attention. When we consciously focus our attention on something, we bring the power of the prefrontal cortex to this endeavor. By honing our ability to focus attention at will, we can more effectively screen out two types of distractions:

  1. Input through our sensory organs
  2. Our emotional responses.

Distractions via sensory input may be the easier of the two to block, according to Daniel Goleman in his book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. As educators, we may tend to notice the impact of sights, sounds, and touch points that draw students’ focus away from lessons and learning activities. But while all of the sensory stimulations in the environment are readily obvious, emotions can be even “louder” when it comes to diverting attention in unwanted directions and making it hard to focus on learning.

Which Neural Network Do We Activate?

To help students learn to maintain focused attention, we can guide them to wire their brains for staying the course even during times of emotional upheaval, remaining level-headed, and riding the emotional waves of life. As with other skills, this cognitive strategy comes with conscious recognition and deliberate practice.

Brain research summarized in a briefing paper from the Dana Foundationindicates that attention activates not one but several neural networks, including an alerting network that signals the brain about incoming sensory stimuli and an orienting network that directs the brain to take notice of the source of the stimuli. A third network, referred to as executive attention, enables us to choose which of the stimuli competing for our attention we will focus our thinking on. In effect, executive attention functions as a control tower for guiding the brain’s higher-level cognitive processes to land on specific tasks and information.

Applying this research, scientists suggest a different way of thinking about and addressing attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The “deficit” in its label suggests inaccurately that students diagnosed with ADHD have a shortage of attention, when in fact the problem may be that they have difficulty in allocating their attention on learning in the classroom.

Cognitive Strategies

This shift in emphasis about where problems with attention may lie, when combined with recent neuroscientific findings, suggests that explicit instruction on regulating students’ attention may provide them with a valuable cognitive strategy to support self-directed learning. The focus of this instruction is on guiding students to understand that they can consciously direct and maintain their attention on learning tasks and that, with regular thoughtful practice, they can improve their ability to attend to learning.

1. Shine the spotlight on attention.

Introduce the subject of attention by asking students to share examples of being so focused on an activity that they’ve blocked out distractions around them, such as getting lost in a good book or movie, practicing the piano, or perfecting their jump shot in basketball. In the same way, they can purposefully focus their attention on learning, and shift their attention from one learning task to another throughout the school day. The prefrontal cortex is in charge of focusing attention, and students can train their brains to better control their attention. Brainstorm ways that regulating attention can improve learning, such as:

  • Paying attention to a lesson instead of being distracted by noise in the hallway or something happening in the schoolyard outside the window
  • Switching from learning one subject to the next or from one class to another
  • Putting aside a lunchtime disagreement with a friend to focus on class in the afternoon
  • Completing a homework assignment before turning on TV or a video game
  • “Turning off” worries about doing well on a test in order to stay focused and remember everything studied
  • Identifying what’s most important right now and paying attention only to that most important thing.

2. Emphasize that focusing attention is a skill that can be learned and improved.

Like any other skill, students can develop their attention for learning through regular practice and training. Give them good reasons for training their attention — people who can take charge of their attention are better at remembering things and figuring out what new information means and how they can use it. They are better at metacognition and higher-order thinking processes. For practical tools to increase student attention and other thinking skills, check out these suggestions.

3. Pace your teaching with students’ attention.

While attention spans vary between individuals, we’ve found that a useful rule of thumb is to focus on presenting new information in roughly eight-minute “chunks.” Students under age eight may benefit from even shorter chunks of lessons and learning activities. In our book BrainSMART: 60 Strategies for Increasing Student Learning, we suggest the acronym CRAVE as a way to remember five other strategies for keeping students’ attention focused on learning:

  • Build curiosity for learning with “teasers” that get students interested in a lesson.
  • Look for ways to make lessons relevant to students’ lives.
  • Ask questions to engage students in learning and inquiry.
  • Remember that variety is the spice of attention — a mix of learning activities helps keep students engaged.
  • Evoke emotions. Just as emotions can be distracting, they can also be used to enhance attention by making a lesson or learning activity more interesting.

Advertisers use these same strategies to grab consumers’ attention, so you might find inspiration for ways to adapt them to your lessons in a TV ad or on the side of a city bus! Keep this in mind as you guide students to improve their selective attention: The first step toward learning is paying attention.


Wilson, D. L., & Conyers, M. A. (2011). BrainSMART: 60 Strategies for Increasing Student Learning. Orlando, FL: BrainSMART.

8 Pathways to Every Student’s Success

11 01 2015


 8 Pathways to Every Student’s Success by Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD

Teachers who transform lives understand not only how to teach curriculum, but also how children develop into capable, caring, and engaged adults. They see beyond quantitative measurements of success to the core abilities that help students live healthy, productive lives.

Famous educator Maria Montessori wisely remarked, “The greatest sign of success for a teacher. . . is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.'”

The world has changed dramatically since the early 1900s when Montessori made her mark in education. Yet the same goal remains: scaffolding children toward self-sufficiency. How does this occur today, particularly when test results often seem more important than the development of a child ready to tackle career-life challenges?

In a nutshell, it happens when we understand how children and teens successfully mature to adulthood and how we impact their growth in key developmental areas. Based on decades of research in child and adolescent development, neuroscience, education, and psychology, we know that relationships with teachers, parents, and other supportive adults determine how school-age children acquire their personal guidance systems, full of interconnected abilities and pathways to success. When we envision those abilities as an internal compass, it’s easy to see how education and development go hand in hand — how children navigate successfully through school and life.

I created The Compass Advantage™ model as a visual, research-based, engaging way for families, schools, and communities to apply the principles of positive youth development. A framework for understanding why kids need these interconnected abilities and how they’re nurtured in different contexts, it’s also a call to act on behalf of children who deserve to live full, meaningful lives beyond external measures of success.

This is the first in a series of nine posts on how teachers develop these internal abilities in the classroom. Each month, we’ll take a deeper dive into one of these eight compass attributes:


Curiosity is the ability to seek and acquire new knowledge, skills, and ways of understanding the world. It is at the heart of what motivates kids to learn and what keeps them learning throughout their lives. Curiosity facilitates engagement, critical thinking, and reasoning.

We nurture children’s curiosity and other life-long learning skills when we encourage them to identify and seek answers to questions that pique their interests. When we help them recognize failure as an opportunity for exploration, we encourage experimentation and discovery. We help them understand the tenets of engaged learning when we recognize the different ways they explore — touching, tasting, climbing, smelling, etc. — and praise them for their perseverance in finding answers. When we show them how parts connect and influence the whole of society, they discover that curiosity improves relationships, fuels innovation, and drives social change.


Sociability is the joyful, cooperative ability to engage with others. It derives from a collection of social-emotional skills that help children understand and express feelings and behaviors in ways that facilitate positive relationships, including active listening, self-regulation, and effective communication.

We impact children’s sociability when we help them understand that the words they choose make a difference to the relationships they create. When we teach them that every social interaction is tied to an emotional reaction, we help them avoid impulsive behavior and think through difficult situations before acting. We also build their capacity for collaborative teamwork.


Resilience is the ability to meet and overcome challenges in ways that maintain or promote well-being. It incorporates attributes like grit, persistence, initiative, and determination.

We build resilience when we push students gently to the edges of their intellectual, emotional, social, and physical comfort zones. Our support and encouragement as they take risks, overcome challenges, and grow from failure helps them learn to bounce back from life’s ups and downs.


Self-awareness is the ability to examine and understand who we are relative to the world around us. It’s developed through skills like self-reflection, meaning making, and honing core values and beliefs. It’s situated at “true south” on the compass to symbolize that introspection is about looking into ourselves. Self-awareness impacts children’s capacity to see themselves as uniquely different from other people.

We stimulate students’ self-awareness when we engage them in reflective conversations about values, beliefs, attitudes, and moral dilemmas. By encouraging them to understand and attend to their intellectual, emotional, social, and physical selves, we let them know that we value their full human potential.


Integrity is the ability to act consistently with the values, beliefs, and principles that we claim to hold. It’s about courage, honesty, and respect in one’s daily interactions — and doing the right thing even when no one is watching.

We shape children’s integrity by treating them with respect and dignity, and listening to their feelings and concerns without judgment. When we praise students for demonstrating their values, beliefs, and principles through actions, we remind them of their value as ethical human beings, beyond a grade or test score.


Resourcefulness is the ability to find and use available resources to achieve goals, problem solve, and shape the future. It draws on skills like planning, goal setting, strategic thinking, and organizing.

We encourage students to be resourceful when we set high expectations and support them to accomplish their goals. When we teach them to be strategic thinkers and adaptable problem solvers, they learn to live without rigid rules or preconceived ideas.


Creativity is the ability to generate and communicate original ideas and appreciate the nature of beauty. It fosters imagination, innovation, and a sense of aesthetics.

We inspire creativity when we encourage young people to express themselves through writing, poetry, acting, photography, art, digital media, unstructured play, etc. When we notice and praise them for thinking outside the box and taking risks, their imaginations blossom.


Empathy is the ability to recognize, feel, and respond to the needs and suffering of others. It facilitates the expression of caring, compassion, and kindness. It’s situated at “true north” on the compass to symbolize the outward impact of educating young citizens committed to creating a just, sustainable world.

We influence children’s abilities to care for others beyond themselves by creating meaningful relationships with them, ensuring that they are seen, felt, and understood regardless of how they learn. When we expose them to different worldviews, engage them with community projects, and bring service learning into the classroom, we develop greater empathy and compassion.

The Compass Advantage views education and child development as integrated processes nurtured through the collaborative efforts of parents, teachers, and out-of-school programs. When we attend to the development of these eight abilities, the results are transformative. Not only do children become lifelong learners, they become what Maria Montessori envisioned — self-sufficient navigators of their own lives.

 Questions Before Answers: What Drives a Great Lesson?

8 01 2015


DECEMBER 18, 2014

Recently, I was looking through my bookshelves and discovered an entire shelf of instruction books that came with software I had previously purchased. Yes, there was a time when software was bought in stores, not downloaded. Upon closer examination of these instruction books, I noticed that many of them were for computers and software that I no longer use or even own. More importantly, most were still in shrink-wrap, never opened. I recalled that when I bought software, I just put the disk into the computer and never looked at the book.

I realized that I did the same when I bought a new car — with one exception. I never read the instruction book in the glove compartment. I just turned on the engine and drove off. I already knew how to drive, so I didn’t need a book. The exception occurred when I tried to set the clock. I couldn’t figure it out, so I finally opened the glove compartment and checked the book.

This pattern was and is true for every device I buy. I never read the book that comes with a toaster, an iPod, or a juicer unless I have a question. There are some people who do read instruction books before using a device, but with no disrespect intended, those people are a small minority. Our minds are set up to not care about answers unless we have a question. The greater the question, the more compelling it is, the more we want the answer. We learn best when questions come before answers.

The Need to Know

Too many classrooms ignore this basic learning model. They spend most of class time providing information and then ask questions in the form of a quiz, test, or discussion. This is backward. Too many students never learn this way. It is simply too hard to understand, organize, interpret, or make sense out of information — or even to care about it — unless it answers a question that students care about.

Lessons, units, and topics are more motivating when they begin with a question whose answer students want to know. Not only do great questions generate interest, they also answer the question that so many students wonder about: “Why do I have to learn this?” Finally, great questions increase cognitive organization of the content by framing it into a meaningful answer to the opening question.

There is a catch, though, in using questions to begin your lesson. The question must be connected to the content, so that the following learning activities actually answer the question. The question must fit your students’ age, ability, and experiences. In addition, the question needs to provoke both thought and curiosity. In fact, it must be compelling enough to generate so much motivation so that students can’t help but want to know the answer.

Have you ever forgotten the name of a song and spent hours trying to remember it? It gets under your skin until you no longer want the answer — you need it. That’s what a great opening question does for students. Compulsion more than simple curiosity drives them to learn the information that follows. It’s what I felt when I finally wanted to read my car manual so that I could set the clock.

10 Questions That Motivate Learning

Questions this powerful are hard to find. I suggest collecting as many as you can (5-10 per year, for example), and after weeding out the ones that didn’t work, eventually you’ll be able to fill a notebook or computer file with them. I have been collecting these kinds of questions from teachers for years. Here’s a sample of some great ones that worked with students in creating enough motivation to drive an entire lesson.

  • Middle school math: What does Martin Luther King have in common with algebra? (Answer: Both are concerned with equality.)
  • First grade science class studying particles: What is the smallest thing you’ve ever held in your hand? (Warning: Do not use this question in high school.)
  • Upper-level history class studying the Pilgrims: Is there anything your parents could ever do to you that would make you run away from home?
  • Elementary art: If humans could be a color other than any of the colors that they already are, what color would they be? Why do you think this? Draw some people of this color.
  • High school English: If Hamlet were a television sitcom, what would be a better name for it?
  • Elementary English: What is the best name for a book about your life?
  • Geography: Why does Israel have more fertile soil than other Middle East countries that share the same desert? (Answer: It has more trees to hold in moisture.)
  • Second grade reading: We are going to redesign the alphabet. What three letters can be eliminated? (Answer: C, Q, X)
  • Eighth grade physical education: Why is a soccer ball harder to control inside the gym than on the field? (Answer: Friction)
  • Middle school English: Why don’t good and food rhyme? Given the definition of best, can you have more than one best friend?

Each of these questions was used by teachers to begin lessons that really motivated their students. Can you add any more to the list?

Debunking the Genius Myth

21 12 2014

| August 30, 2013 |


Picture a “genius” — you’ll probably conjure an image of an Einstein-like character, an older man in a rumpled suit, disorganized and distracted even as he, almost accidentally, stumbles upon his next “big idea.” In truth, the acclaimed scientist actually said, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” But the narrative around Einstein and a lot of accomplished geniuses — think Ben Franklin, the key and the bolt of lightning — tends to focus more on mind-blowing talent and less on the hard work behind the rise to success. A downside of the genius mythology results in many kids trudging through school believing that a great student is born, not made — lucky or unlucky, Einstein or Everyman.

Harvard-educated tutors Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien began to notice that this belief about being born smart was creating a lot of frustration for the kids they tutored, and sometimes unwittingly reinforced by their parents. “We had sessions working with a student where the mom would walk by and say, ‘Oh, he didn’t get the math gene!’” said O’Brien. “And I’d think, Gee, give the kid a reason to never even try.”

“Try,” it seems, is the magical and operative word that has the possibility to transform how well a student does in school — once they understand a little about how to try, and a little about how learning and the brain works. How students think about learning makes a difference in what they’re able to achieve. Groundbreaking research conducted by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has shown that when students take on a growth mindset – one in which they believe that the brain is malleable, and they can improve at a task with effort – they handle setbacks better and improve academically.

“Kids are sent to school with no manual on how to use their brains. Not what to learn buthow to learn.”

Maats and O’Brien knew about all the research, and began sharing information about learning and the brain with their students. They turned their one-on-ones into a book, The Straight-A Conspiracy, to show teenagers that they had control, for a large part, over how they did in school, and that believing certain kids were born talented was a grand conspiracy to keep them down and stressed out (with tongue planted firmly in cheek). The authors use the latest research in psychology and neuroscience to try and convince teens, with lots of pop culture references and humor thrown in, that understanding how their brain learns can help them “totally rule the world.”

Maats explained that often students he tutored had watched another kid in class blow through an assignment and assumed they were just naturally good at it, that they didn’t even have to try. But he began clarifying the real reason they worked so fast; the student knew the answer right away because “it had become automatic,” he said. “They looked effortless, but they only became effortless through hard work.” Unlike sports or music, where students can see others practicing, much of schoolwork practice happens at home, builds slowly over time, and goes unseen. “You don’t see the work others are doing, so it looks like it never happened,” Maats said.

[RELATED: Eight Ways of Looking at Intelligence]

O’Brien said that “geniuses” also know how to focus their attention, and that’s why they may appear calm. “That overwhelmed feeling is coming from attention being focused on too many things that are not automated at once,” she said. “You can’t focus on two things you don’t know – but neither could Einstein!” Explaining one of the largest conspiracies they face with students, and parents’ biggest complaint, student multitasking, they disseminate the research for the teenage brain:

“Your attention can only deal with one unautomated task at a time. The idea that your attention can multitask is a major myth… When you’re trying to do all four of these tasks – walking, chewing gum, talking to your friend and reading Huckleberry Finn – the first two won’t be affected, because you’ve automated them. You can keep walking and chewing gum without even noticing they’re happening. But each of the new activities – holding a new conversation and reading a new book – requires your full attention in order to go well… But the more important point is that you just don’t want to put yourself through that! It’s totally manic!… The more stuff you pile on at once, the more time pressure you add to the situation, the more you start to feel really overwhelmed.”

By using concrete research in a way that speaks directly to teenagers, Maats and O’Brien hope to dispel the image of the rumpled genius, being brilliant in spite of himself. Instead, they want students to know that there are proven techniques that can improve their school performance and get parents and teachers off their back (a particular favorite is “Go Cyborg on Your Mistakes,” an extended “Terminator” metaphor that relates the idea of focused practice). And they seem to relish explaining that the straight-A student is working harder than kids think.

[RELATED: Can Everyone Be Smart At Everything?]

“You would never put a child into the driver’s seat of a car, with no license and no drivers’ ed, and expect him to be able to cruise down the highway successfully, with no fear or hesitation,” said O’Brien. “And yet kids are sent to school with no manual on how to use their brains. Not what to learn but how to learn. The result is that everyone spends their days in school guessing what might be the best approach, the most effective technique…and the questioning about the how takes a lot of time and attention away from what needs to be learned.”

Why Tough Teachers Get Good Results

8 12 2014
I had a teacher once who called his students “idiots” when they screwed up. He was our orchestra conductor, a fierce Ukrainian immigrant named Jerry Kupchynsky, and when someone played out of tune, he would stop the entire group to yell, “Who eez deaf in first violins!?” He made us rehearse until our fingers almost bled. He corrected our wayward hands and arms by poking at us with a pencil.Today, he’d be fired. But when he died a few years ago, he was celebrated: Forty years’ worth of former students and colleagues flew back to my New Jersey hometown from every corner of the country, old instruments in tow, to play a concert in his memory. I was among them, toting my long-neglected viola. When the curtain rose on our concert that day, we had formed a symphony orchestra the size of the New York Philharmonic.

Mr. K began teaching at East Brunswick High School when it opened in 1958. Kupchynsky Family

I was stunned by the outpouring for the gruff old teacher we knew as Mr. K. But I was equally struck by the success of his former students. Some were musicians, but most had distinguished themselves in other fields, like law, academia and medicine. Research tells us that there is a positive correlation between music education and academic achievement. But that alone didn’t explain the belated surge of gratitude for a teacher who basically tortured us through adolescence.

We’re in the midst of a national wave of self-recrimination over the U.S. education system. Every day there is hand-wringing over our students falling behind the rest of the world. Fifteen-year-olds in the U.S. trail students in 12 other nations in science and 17 in math, bested by their counterparts not just in Asia but in Finland, Estonia and the Netherlands, too. An entire industry of books and consultants has grown up that capitalizes on our collective fear that American education is inadequate and asks what American educators are doing wrong.

I would ask a different question. What did Mr. K do right? What can we learn from a teacher whose methods fly in the face of everything we think we know about education today, but who was undeniably effective?

As it turns out, quite a lot. Comparing Mr. K’s methods with the latest findings in fields from music to math to medicine leads to a single, startling conclusion: It’s time to revive old-fashioned education. Not just traditional but old-fashioned in the sense that so many of us knew as kids, with strict discipline and unyielding demands. Because here’s the thing: It works.

Now I’m not calling for abuse; I’d be the first to complain if a teacher called my kids names. But the latest evidence backs up my modest proposal. Studies have now shown, among other things, the benefits of moderate childhood stress; how praise kills kids’ self-esteem; and why grit is a better predictor of success than SAT scores.

All of which flies in the face of the kinder, gentler philosophy that has dominated American education over the past few decades. The conventional wisdom holds that teachers are supposed to tease knowledge out of students, rather than pound it into their heads. Projects and collaborative learning are applauded; traditional methods like lecturing and memorization—derided as “drill and kill”—are frowned upon, dismissed as a surefire way to suck young minds dry of creativity and motivation.

But the conventional wisdom is wrong. And the following eight principles—a manifesto if you will, a battle cry inspired by my old teacher and buttressed by new research—explain why.

1. A little pain is good for you.

Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson gained fame for his research showing that true expertise requires about 10,000 hours of practice, a notion popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers.” But an often-overlooked finding from the same study is equally important: True expertise requires teachers who give “constructive, even painful, feedback,” as Dr. Ericsson put it in a 2007 Harvard Business Review article. He assessed research on top performers in fields ranging from violin performance to surgery to computer programming to chess. And he found that all of them “deliberately picked unsentimental coaches who would challenge them and drive them to higher levels of performance.”

Mr. Kupchynsky helps his daughter with her bow stroke in 1966. Arthur Montzka

2. Drill, baby, drill.

Rote learning, long discredited, is now recognized as one reason that children whose families come from India (where memorization is still prized) are creaming their peers in the National Spelling Bee Championship. This cultural difference also helps to explain why students in China (and Chinese families in the U.S.) are better at math. Meanwhile, American students struggle with complex math problems because, as research makes abundantly clear, they lack fluency in basic addition and subtraction—and few of them were made to memorize their times tables.

William Klemm of Texas A&M University argues that the U.S. needs to reverse the bias against memorization. Even the U.S. Department of Education raised alarm bells, chastising American schools in a 2008 report that bemoaned the lack of math fluency (a notion it mentioned no fewer than 17 times). It concluded that schools need to embrace the dreaded “drill and practice.”

3. Failure is an option.

Kids who understand that failure is a necessary aspect of learning actually perform better. In a 2012 study, 111 French sixth-graders were given anagram problems that were too difficult for them to solve. One group was then told that failure and trying again are part of the learning process. On subsequent tests, those children consistently outperformed their peers.

The fear, of course is that failure will traumatize our kids, sapping them of self-esteem. Wrong again. In a 2006 study, a Bowling Green State University graduate student followed 31 Ohio band students who were required to audition for placement and found that even students who placed lowest “did not decrease in their motivation and self-esteem in the long term.” The study concluded that educators need “not be as concerned about the negative effects” of picking winners and losers.

4. Strict is better than nice.

What makes a teacher successful? To find out, starting in 2005 a team of researchers led by Claremont Graduate University education professor Mary Poplin spent five years observing 31 of the most highly effective teachers (measured by student test scores) in the worst schools of Los Angeles, in neighborhoods like South Central and Watts. Their No. 1 finding: “They were strict,” she says. “None of us expected that.”

The researchers had assumed that the most effective teachers would lead students to knowledge through collaborative learning and discussion. Instead, they found disciplinarians who relied on traditional methods of explicit instruction, like lectures. “The core belief of these teachers was, ‘Every student in my room is underperforming based on their potential, and it’s my job to do something about it—and I can do something about it,'” says Prof. Poplin.

She reported her findings in a lengthy academic paper. But she says that a fourth-grader summarized her conclusions much more succinctly this way: “When I was in first grade and second grade and third grade, when I cried my teachers coddled me. When I got to Mrs. T’s room, she told me to suck it up and get to work. I think she’s right. I need to work harder.”

5. Creativity can be learned.

The rap on traditional education is that it kills children’s’ creativity. But Temple University psychology professor Robert W. Weisberg’s research suggests just the opposite. Prof. Weisberg has studied creative geniuses including Thomas Edison, Frank Lloyd Wright and Picasso—and has concluded that there is no such thing as a born genius. Most creative giants work ferociously hard and, through a series of incremental steps, achieve things that appear (to the outside world) like epiphanies and breakthroughs.

Prof. Weisberg analyzed Picasso’s 1937 masterpiece Guernica, for instance, which was painted after the Spanish city was bombed by the Germans. The painting is considered a fresh and original concept, but Prof. Weisberg found instead that it was closely related to several of Picasso’s earlier works and drew upon his study of paintings by Goya and then-prevalent Communist Party imagery. The bottom line, Prof. Weisberg told me, is that creativity goes back in many ways to the basics. “You have to immerse yourself in a discipline before you create in that discipline. It is built on a foundation of learning the discipline, which is what your music teacher was requiring of you.”

6. Grit trumps talent.

In recent years, University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth has studied spelling bee champs, Ivy League undergrads and cadets at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.—all together, over 2,800 subjects. In all of them, she found that grit—defined as passion and perseverance for long-term goals—is the best predictor of success. In fact, grit is usually unrelated or even negatively correlated with talent.

Tough on the podium, Mr. K was always appreciative when he sat in the audience. Above, applauding his students in the mid-1970s. Arthur Montzka

Prof. Duckworth, who started her career as a public school math teacher and just won a 2013 MacArthur “genius grant,” developed a “Grit Scale” that asks people to rate themselves on a dozen statements, like “I finish whatever I begin” and “I become interested in new pursuits every few months.” When she applied the scale to incoming West Point cadets, she found that those who scored higher were less likely to drop out of the school’s notoriously brutal summer boot camp known as “Beast Barracks.” West Point’s own measure—an index that includes SAT scores, class rank, leadership and physical aptitude—wasn’t able to predict retention.

Prof. Duckworth believes that grit can be taught. One surprisingly simple factor, she says, is optimism—the belief among both teachers and students that they have the ability to change and thus to improve. In a 2009 study of newly minted teachers, she rated each for optimism (as measured by a questionnaire) before the school year began. At the end of the year, the students whose teachers were optimists had made greater academic gains.

7. Praise makes you weak…

My old teacher Mr. K seldom praised us. His highest compliment was “not bad.” It turns out he was onto something. Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck has found that 10-year-olds praised for being “smart” became less confident. But kids told that they were “hard workers” became more confident and better performers.

“The whole point of intelligence praise is to boost confidence and motivation, but both were gone in a flash,” wrote Prof. Dweck in a 2007 article in the journal Educational Leadership. “If success meant they were smart, then struggling meant they were not.”

8.…while stress makes you strong.

A 2011 University at Buffalo study found that a moderate amount of stress in childhood promotes resilience. Psychology professor Mark D. Seery gave healthy undergraduates a stress assessment based on their exposure to 37 different kinds of significant negative events, such as death or illness of a family member. Then he plunged their hands into ice water. The students who had experienced a moderate number of stressful events actually felt less pain than those who had experienced no stress at all.

“Having this history of dealing with these negative things leads people to be more likely to have a propensity for general resilience,” Prof. Seery told me. “They are better equipped to deal with even mundane, everyday stressors.”

Prof. Seery’s findings build on research by University of Nebraska psychologist Richard Dienstbier, who pioneered the concept of “toughness”—the idea that dealing with even routine stresses makes you stronger. How would you define routine stresses? “Mundane things, like having a hardass kind of teacher,” Prof. Seery says.

My tough old teacher Mr. K could have written the book on any one of these principles. Admittedly, individually, these are forbidding precepts: cold, unyielding, and kind of scary.

But collectively, they convey something very different: confidence. At their core is the belief, the faith really, in students’ ability to do better. There is something to be said about a teacher who is demanding and tough not because he thinks students will never learn but because he is so absolutely certain that they will.

Decades later, Mr. K’s former students finally figured it out, too. “He taught us discipline,” explained a violinist who went on to become an Ivy League-trained doctor. “Self-motivation,” added a tech executive who once played the cello. “Resilience,” said a professional cellist. “He taught us how to fail—and how to pick ourselves up again.”

Clearly, Mr. K’s methods aren’t for everyone. But you can’t argue with his results. And that’s a lesson we can all learn from.

Ms. Lipman is co-author, with Melanie Kupchynsky, of “Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations,” to be published by Hyperion on Oct. 1. She is a former deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal and former editor-in-chief of Condé Nast Portfolio.

Bestowing the Gift of Self-Confidence to Students

7 12 2014

The Gift of Self-Confidence

The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.”
J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

            One of the most important gifts that a teacher can impart to a student is the gift of self-confidence.  To succeed at anything, a person must believe that success is possible.  Many students lack the belief that they could possibly be successful in school or anywhere else; as a result, these same people have difficulty succeeding in life. Students who doubt their abilities often lack any motivation to try.  If a person does not try, they have no possibility of succeeding.  As a result, an educator must first impart the ability to believe in oneself before the student can begin to succeed. Educators must become Peter Pan to help students fly.

When I was teaching in an Alternative Education, I was amazed at the students who had no desire to do well in school or even to attempt to do well in school.  After getting to know these students, I discovered that most of them had suffered so many humiliating failures at school that they believed that they were not capable of learning. They found it was less painful to do nothing, than to attempt anything and fail.  To continually have the belief that they could not succeed reinforced was just too painful for them.  Some of them used outrageous behavior as a way of avoiding this failure. I remember one particular student, Juan, who would not stay in his seat, sang loudly and yelled obscenities across the room to avoid a writing assignment. To reach students like Juan, I had to break down their barriers, get to know them as individuals, persuade them that I was their advocate and I was going to show them how to be successful by celebrating even their smallest achievement.  Being successful can be  rewarding, but to convince these students of that, the teachers needs to break successful behavior into its smallest components and reward for the successful completion of each small step.  For example, I began by rewarding students for coming to class prepared.  Each student who had a pencil and paper was rewarded with a small piece of candy.  Next I created a chart on the board showing the relationship of how a student would feel if he brought this parents a report cards with all “A’s” on it compared to how he would feel if he brought his parents a report card with all “F’s” on it.  Helping a student understand that happiness is directly connected to their success in school is an important step to motivating them to want to succeed.

Students who feel socially inept are often unhappy at school.  Girls, especially, suffer from social bullying that goes unnoticed by educators.  Our society puts so much emphasis on physical beauty and social position in school that students who do not fit the norm are often isolated.  Girls often exclude these girls from social situations and do not include them even in conversations.  Shunning can be cruel treatment that can cause scars that last a lifetime.  Some of this bullying takes the form of cruel comments in social media or scathing remarks made in a classroom or a hallway.  Students who suffer from these vicious assaults lose their self-esteem and as a result, do poorly academically or feel badly about continuing their education because it is too painful.   As an educator, protecting and supporting students’ self-esteem should be one of our goals. Helping students learn to accept and embrace people who are different from them should be another. For students to do well, all students must feel safe and appreciated.

When teachers are writing goals for their classrooms, academic goals are only one dimension of education.  Helping a student feel safe and good about his ability to succeed should be high on the list of objectives. Helping a student accept that others may differ from him, but should still included  in the community without ridicule or attack.   School should prepare students to succeed in life.  If a student has doubts or is not empowered with self-confidence, he cannot succeed.  Like Peter Pan, teachers must bestow the gift of self-confidence.

Posted by Jill Jenkins 

Study: Self-regulation helps kindergartners

24 11 2014


Study: Self-regulation helps kindergartners

  • Students in their first years of school have a lot of new ground to cover, from steps along the road to reading to beginning math concepts. But one of their most important tasks may be learning how to master themselves.

A new study from New York University researchers Clancy Blair and C. Cybele Raver links a kindergarten program that specifically promotes “executive functions” – such as self-control, paying attention and planning – with academic improvements that persist beyond kindergarten.

Authors of the study say that students in high-poverty schools were especially likely to benefit from learning self-regulation skills, suggesting that a focus on those skills in early elementary education “holds promise for closing the achievement gap.”

The study evaluated the impact of a kindergarten-based program called Tools of the Mind. The program is a set of classroom practices designed to help young children master higher-level cognitive skills while also learning literacy, math and science aligned with the Common Core standards.

Tools of the Mind emphasizes classroom practices such as setting goals, working with learning partners, movement games and using dramatic play that is tied to literature and stories.

The two-year study, which compared children in a traditional kindergarten program to students in a Tools of the Mind program, involved 759 children in 29 Massachusetts schools.

Students in the Tools of the Mind program were better able to sustain attention despite distractions, had better working memory and were more engaged than those students in traditional kindergarten classes. In addition, the students in Tools of the Mind had greater improvements in math, reading and vocabulary when compared to the control group.

The study authors emphasize that the program can be put in place without costly resources and support beyond professional development for teachers. That, they suggest, may make the approach especially valuable for schools in high-poverty areas.

Dipsticks: Efficient Ways to Check for Understanding

6 08 2014

Dipsticks: Efficient Ways to Check for Understanding


What strategy doubles student learning? According to 250 empirical studies, the answer is formative assessment, defined by Bill Younglove as “the frequent, interactive checking of student progress and understanding in order to identify learning needs and adjust teaching appropriately.”

Unlike summative assessment, which evaluates student learning according to a benchmark, formative assessment monitors student understanding so that kids are always aware of their academic strengths and learning gaps. Meanwhile, teachers can improve the effectiveness of their instruction, re-teaching if necessary. “When the cook tastes the soup,” writes Robert E. Stake, “that’s formative; when the guests taste the soup, that’s summative.” Formative assessment can be administered as an exam. But if the assessment is not a traditional quiz, it falls within the category ofalternative assessment.

Alternative formative assessment (AFA) strategies can be as simple (and important) as checking the oil in your car — hence the name “dipsticks.” They’re especially effective when students are given tactical feedback, immediately followed by time to practice the skill. My favorite techniques are those with simple directions, like The 60 Second Paper, which asks students to describe the most important thing they learned and identify any areas of confusion in under a minute. You can find another 53 ways to check for understanding toward the end of this post, also available as a downloadable document.

In the sections below, we’ll discuss things to consider when implementing AFAs.

Observation: A Key Practice in Alternative Formative Assessment

A fundamental element of most AFAs is observation. In her Edutopia post, Rebecca Alber says there is much to learn by taking observational notes as students work in groups. “However,” she clarifies, “if it is quiet during this talk time, and they are watching you watch them, they are most likely lost.” Another Edutopia blogger, Elena Aguilar witnessed “a fantastic first grade Sheltered English teacher” who directed his students to respond to a story by making hand gestures and holding up picture cards. “In this way, the teacher was able to immediately see who was struggling with the concepts and provide corrective feedback.”

By methodically watching and recording student performance with a focused observation form, you can learn a lot about students’ levels of understanding in just a few moments. For example, on the Teach Like a Champion blog, watch how math teacher Taryn Pritchard uses an observation sheet, and note her description of how she pre-plans to assess students’ mastery levels in only ten seconds. Pre-planning methodical observations allow instructors to efficiently and effectively intervene when it counts most — the instant students start down the wrong path.

New to Alternative Formative Assessment? Start Slow

The National Capital Language Resource Center recommends the following when introducing alternative assessment for the first time:

  • Integrate alternative assessments gradually, while still using the traditional assessments.
  • Walk students through the rubrics and discuss expectations when you introduce assignments.
  • Learn to score alternative assessments yourself, and then gradually introduce students to self-evaluation.
  • Teach students how to thoughtfully give each other feedback as you introduce them to peer-response.

A Simple Way to Gain Information from Your Students: Ask Them

When preservice teachers are confused as to why their students performed poorly on an assignment, I gently say, “Did you ask them why?” After all, having learners use their own vernacular to articulate why they are stuck can be profoundly useful for identifying where to target support.

According to the American Institute of Nondestructive Testing, the simplest tool to encourage student self-assessment is evaluative prompts:

  • How much time and effort did you put into this?
  • What do you think your strengths and weaknesses were in this assignment?
  • How could you improve your assignment?
  • What are the most valuable things you learned from this assignment?

Learners can respond to those prompts using Padlet, a virtual corkboard where many computer users can simultaneously post their responses, followed by a focused whole-class discussion of students’ answers. The instructor doesn’t always have to develop prompts — students can invent and submit one or more potential exam questions and answers on relevant content. Tell them that you’ll include the best contributions on a forthcoming quiz.

Portfolios are a more complex form of ongoing self-assessment that can be featured during student-led conferences. James Mule, principal of St. Amelia Elementary School in New York, describes how children benefit from the student-led conferences that occur at his institution: “With the student in charge and the teacher acting as a facilitator, the authentic assessment gives students practice in self-evaluation and boosts accountability, self-confidence, and self-esteem.” Pernille Ripp’s Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension provides all the handouts needed.

The biggest benefit of integrating AFAs into your practice is that students will internalize the habit of monitoring their understanding and adjusting accordingly.

We created the following list as a downloadable reminder to post by your computer. In the comments section of this post, tell us which of these 53 ways you’ve used for checking on students’ understanding — or recommend other AFAs we should know about.

53 Ways to Check for Understanding
  1. Summary Poem Activity
    • List ten key words from an assigned text.
    • Do a free verse poem with the words you highlighted.
    • Write a summary of the reading based on these words.
  2. Invent the Quiz
    • Write ten higher-order text questions related to the content. Pick two and answer one of them in half a page.
  3. The 411
    • Describe the author’s objective.
  4. Opinion Chart
    • List opinions about the content in the left column of a T-chart, and support your opinions in the right column.
  5. So What? Journal
    • Identify the main idea of the lesson. Why is it important?
  6. Rate Understanding
  7. Clickers (Response System)
  8. Teacher Observation Checklist
  9. Explaining
    • Explain the main idea using an analogy.
  10. Evaluate
    • What is the author’s main point? What are the arguments for and against this idea?
  11. Describe
    • What are the important characteristics or features of the main concept or idea of the reading?
  12. Define
    • Pick out an important word or phrase that the author of a text introduces. What does it mean?
  13. Compare and Contrast
    • Identify the theory or idea the author is advancing. Then identify an opposite theory. What are the similarities and differences between these ideas?
  14. Question Stems
    • I believe that ________ because _______.
    • I was most confused by _______.
  15. Mind Map
    • Create a mind map that represents a concept using a diagram-making tool (like Gliffy). Provide your teacher/classmates with the link to your mind map.
  16. Intrigue Journal
    • List the five most interesting, controversial, or resonant ideas you found in the readings. Include page numbers and a short rationale (100 words) for your selection.
  17. Advertisement
    • Create an ad, with visuals and text, for the newly learned concept.
  18. 5 Words
    • What five words would you use to describe ______? Explain and justify your choices.
  19. Muddy Moment
    • What frustrates and confuses you about the text? Why?
  20. Collage
    • Create a collage around the lesson’s themes. Explain your choices in one paragraph.
  21. Letter
    • Explain _______ in a letter to your best friend.
  22. Talk Show Panel
    • Have a cast of experts debate the finer points of _______.
  23. Study Guide
    • What are the main topics, supporting details, important person’s contributions, terms, and definitions?
  24. Illustration
    • Draw a picture that illustrates a relationship between terms in the text. Explain in one paragraph your visual representation.
  25. KWL Chart
    • What do you know, what do you want to know, and what have you learned?
  26. Sticky Notes Annotation
    • Use sticky notes to describe key passages that are notable or that you have questions about.
  27. 3-2-1
    • Three things you found out.
    • Two interesting things.
    • One question you still have.
  28. Outline
    • Represent the organization of _______ by outlining it.
  29. Anticipation Guide
    • Establish a purpose for reading and create post-reading reflections and discussion.
  30. Simile
    • What we learned today is like _______.
  31. The Minute Paper
    • In one minute, describe the most meaningful thing you’ve learned.
  32. Interview You
    • You’re the guest expert on 60 Minutes. Answer:
      1. What are component parts of _______?
      2. Why does this topic matter?
  33. Double Entry Notebook
    • Create a two-column table. Use the left column to write down 5-8 important quotations. Use the right column to record reactions to the quotations.
  34. Comic Book
    • Use a comic book creation tool like Bitstrips to represent understanding.
  35. Tagxedo
    • What are key words that express the main ideas? Be ready to discuss and explain.
  36. Classroom TED Talk
  37. Podcast
    • Play the part of a content expert and discuss content-related issues on a podcast, using the free Easypodcast.
  38. Create a Multimedia Poster with Glogster
  39. Twitter Post
    • Define _______ in under 140 characters.
  40. Explain Your Solution
    • Describe how you solved an academic problem, step by step.
  41. Dramatic Interpretation
    • Dramatize a critical scene from a complex narrative.
  42. Ballad
    • Summarize a narrative that employs a poem or song structure using short stanzas.
  43. Pamphlet
    • Describe the key features of _______ in a visually and textually compelling pamphlet.
  44. Study Guide
    • Create a study guide that outlines main ideas.
  45. Bio Poem
    • To describe a character or person, write a poem that includes:
      • (Line 1) First name
      • (Line 2) 3-4 adjectives that describe the person
      • (Line 3) Important relationship
      • (Line 4) 2-3 things, people, or ideas the person loved
      • (Line 5) Three feelings the person experienced
      • (Line 6) Three fears the person experienced
      • (Line 7) Accomplishments
      • (Line 8) 2-3 things the person wanted to see happen or wanted to experience
      • (Line 9) His or her residence
      • (Line 10) Last name
  46. Sketch
    • Visually represent new knowledge.
  47. Top Ten List
    • What are the most important takeaways, written with humor?
  48. Color Cards
    • Red = “Stop, I need help.”
    • Green = “Keep going, I understand.”
    • Yellow = “I’m a little confused.”
  49. Quickwrite
    • Without stopping, write what most confuses you.
  50. Conference
    • A short, focused discussion between the teacher and student.
  51. Debrief
    • Reflect immediately after an activity.
  52. Exit Slip
    • Have students reflect on lessons learned during class.
  53. Misconception Check
    • Given a common misconception about a topic, students explain why they agree or disagree with it.

Other Assessment Resources

In Edutopia’s The Power of Comprehensive Assessment, Bob Lenz describes how to create a balanced assessment system.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) describes dozens of Formative Assessment Strategies.

The Assessment and Rubrics page of Kathy Schrock’s Guide to Everything website hosts many excellent assessment rubrics.

More Rubrics for Assessment are provided by the University of Wisconsin-Stout.

Jon Mueller’s Authentic Tasks and Rubrics is a must see-resource in his Authentic Assessment Toolbox website.

Top 12 Summer Tips for Top Teachers

3 07 2014
JULY 1, 2014

During summer days, if you’re a top teacher, you’ll take time to improve your best asset — you. If somehow it’s not clear why that’s so important, look at it this way: when financial times are tight, our schools can improve the bottom line in four ways, three which aren’t beneficial for us as teachers.

  1. They can cut teachers and staff.
  2. They can cut benefits.
  3. They can lower quality.
  4. We teachers can become more productive and better at our jobs.

The best choice for our students, schools, and us is #4 — becoming better teachers. But how? We’re so tired!

Here are 12 tips that I use to level up every summer.

1. Rework the Worst to Be the Best

Based on student feedback, rework your least engaging lessons to make them the most exciting lessons the next year. Create costumes or comb thrift shops, make room decorations, and spend time inventing powerful learning experiences. Top teachers never settle.

2. Prepare Platforms

Reevaluate online platforms and learn what you could be doing. Revisit your favorite sites to see what new features they’ve added. You can’t paint your room every year, but you can apply a new theme to your Ning and give the class wiki a facelift!

3. Record and Prepare Your Digital Persona

Many teachers use videos to enhance instruction. Using Sophia and Office Mix for PowerPoint, I am recording the screencasts for the first few weeks of school. Sometimes I even grab my iPhone and record a message for my students in an odd place like on top of a zip line platform or after rafting a river. These personal connections help enhance our relationship.

4. Learn and Share

Read, watch videos, and share what you’ve learned. A powerful network of educators is emerging on Goodreads. You can read friends’ book recommendations and create a personal book challenge. (If you read on Kindle and link your Amazon account to Goodreads, it tracks your progress automatically.) You can write book reviews, tweet, or blog what you’ve learned. The discipline of writing book reviews will help you remember. Plus, educators who care share.

5. Connect with Colleagues

Educators can be so inspiring. Take time to read blogs and learn best practices. The summer is a perfect time to join Twitter chats or listen to educational Internet radio.

6. Revitalize Your Physical Health

Your health impacts your mood and your ability to perform at peak levels. (See my post 12 Choices to Step Back from Burnout for more on this.) In the summer, I run or walk first thing in the morning, drink lots of green tea, and catch up on rest. What is your plan?

7. Disconnect Completely

Be a human being, not a human doing. Experience life — don’t just take pictures of others doing it. Be unafraid to go where cellular signals do not break the underbrush. When you disconnect, you’ll return with renewed energy that comes from reestablishing relationships. You’ll think more clearly after having your thought patterns uninterrupted by tweets, beats, and the bleats of an always-on society.

8. Embrace Change

Some people are afraid of change. Others don’t want to change because it makes them feel dumb. Here’s the thing — the longer you wait to change, the dumber you will feel. Intentionally push yourself out of your comfort zone. Go new places. Do new things. Buy a new outfit. Wear your hair in a new way. Try a new tool.

9. Tinker

Do you remember those summer days long ago? Your parents asked you what you did, and you answered, “I just messed around.” Well, you can still take time to mess around. I’m tinkering with ClassDojo and learning everything I can about the Maker movement and 3D printers. I’m tinkering with apps and a new Chromebook. Summer is the time to tinker.

10. Laugh (a Lot)

Laughter is good for you. In the car, look up jokes and read them to your fellow travelers. Eventually you’ll find one that has you howling with happy tears in mobile reverie.

11. Set Goals and Remember Who You Are

Set goals or revise those you’ve already written. Where do you want to be next summer, next year, or in five years? Take time to update your goals and review them daily.

12. Be Prepared to Hit a Home Run on the First Day: Be “The Babe”

If you’re watching baseball this summer, there’s nothing more exhilarating than when a hitter slams a home run on the first at bat. Then, if he does it another time, everyone is even more wowed and amazed. Here are just a few resources to get you thinking this summer about making that strong start in the first few days of school:

As for me, I will be prepared to be the Babe — a Babe Ruth of teachers, that is. I’m going to slug a jaw-dropping, mind-bending home run. I’m going to work to impress my parents with the first supply list sent home. You get one chance to create a first impression. The rest of your year will benefit if you can come out of the dugout with your Louisville slugger in hand, ready to slam it home.

Happy Summer!

So have an awesome, funny, happy, sensational, disconnected, connected blast of a summer, my friends. Come back better than ever, because you will make the difference in your school this next year. Be epic. Be awesome. Be the kind of teacher our world needs today.

Level up your learning, and your students will, too!

Deciphering the teen brain and behavior

13 04 2014

Deciphering the teen brain and behavior

New science finds developmental stage lasts into 20s — which explains some trying behavior

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published: March 23, 2014, 6:00 AM

YOYO, you know? So GOMB! I’m LHHIMB!

You’re only young once, that is, so get off my back! I’m laughing hella hard inside my brain!

Actually, there’s much more than hysterical laughter and angry outbursts — and textspeak — happening in the brains of adolescents. Over the past decade, scientists have taken advantage of cutting-edge technology such as magnetic resonance imaging to peer deeply into the heads of young people.

What they have found is that long-accepted conventional wisdom about the developing human brain — that earliest training and conditioning are what matter most, because the game is up by age 3 or so — is not entirely true.

“We know from research that early childhood is a critical period,” said Jane Lanigan, an associate professor of human development at Washington State University Vancouver. “What we’ve learned is that adolescence is a second critical period.”

Parenting links

Jane Lanigan, associate professor of human development at Washington State University Vancouver, recommends a couple of websites for parents:, posted by the University of Illinois, free registration gets you many informative, snappy articles on parenting teens and tweens

Neuroplasticity keeps the brain learning

In a word, what we’ve learned recently about the developing brain is this: neuroplasticity. That’s the brain’s lifelong ability to learn new things and rewire itself.

It’s not as easy when you’re 70 as when you’re 20. But it’s not impossible, either. While the jury remains out on spendy brain-fitness programs, most scientists and medical professionals agree on the lifelong benefits of keeping your head working on enjoyable challenges, be it the daily Sudoku puzzle or those saxophone lessons you always wanted to try.

Here’s a quick guide to what’s going on between your ears during five essential stages of life.

In utero and infancy: The brain is building structure and forming connections. There are trillions of synapses in the newborn brain — twice as many as in the adult one — leading some to call it the most complex thing in the universe. Recent science has found that unborn and young children who experience traumatic stress — not to mention drugs and alcohol — may carry markers of it all their lives.

Years 1 to 6: The brain is like a fast-growing sponge, reaching 95 percent of its adult weight. Perception and reasoning, movement and emotions, planning and memory are all firing up, while the ancient, instinctive “lizard brain” is already on the job. Parents who nurture, stimulate and “chat up” their kids are building a firm lifelong foundation; parents who are overly negative or harsh are setting that foundation, too.

Years 7 to 22: The second stage of peak brain development is in early adolescence, making it another phase of high emotion and inconsistency. Hormones are coursing through the system while the prefrontal cortex, which controls impulses and makes reasoned decisions, is the last to mature. Teens should strive to think twice about taking risks; parents should keep lines of communication open and strive for a balance of understanding, patience and consistency.

“Adulthood”: The brain is reaching the peak of its power, and with it your ability to communicate, undertake and resolve challenges and strike a mature balance between rational, emotional and intuitive behavior. But the brain regions that matured last are also the first to start declining, eventually leading to slower processing speeds and spottier memory. Experts advise “lifelong learning” as well as standard health practices like healthy eating and exercise.

65 and better: Science is still teasing out details of the aging brain. Memory may be declining and speed slowing, but continuing to challenge your brain will spur the growth of new brain cells. New research suggests that some of the aging brain’s slowing may be caused by the huge amount of stuff that’s stored in there — a lifelong accumulation.

SOURCES: National Institutes of Health, National Geographic, The New York Times, Public Broadcasting Service, SharpBrains

Until you’re well into your 20s — and especially in your early- to midteen years, somewhere between 12 and 15 — that brain of yours remains a bustling construction, demolition and reconstruction site. Cells and connecting synapses are being grown, used and strengthened — or not used, pruned and replaced. Totally occupied by vast volumes of incoming information and sensation, and practicing up on bodily functions and feelings, the young brain’s necessary skill at mature decision-making and top-down control develops much later — last, in fact. Meanwhile a region called the amygdala — the seat of fear, emotional reactions and fight-or-flight instincts — is fully functioning from day one.

For parents of not-so-young children, knowing all that can help ease a life passage that’s fraught with conflict, risk, rapid changes, high emotion and little logic.

“The developmental phase and the dependency on parents goes well into the early 20s,” Lanigan said. “Early childhood is critical, but I’m concerned about … the message that nothing matters from age 3 on. The research does not support that.

“It’s a time of intense change,” she said. “They can go in all different directions. It can be very inconsistent.” Parents who respond with both understanding and consistency “are going to see better outcomes,” she said.

Training time

Red light. What do you do?

Stop and wait, look around and be safe, of course. Everybody knows that. Unless, that is, they’ve got “incomplete frontal lobe development,” Lanigan said.

The whole frontal lobe area, and in particular the prefrontal cortex that’s right behind your eyes and forehead, is the brain’s mature decision-maker — the part that considers: What if I just floor it and blast through the intersection? Even more broadly, what happens to the whole world if everybody starts blasting through intersections?

That kind of abstract, moral thinking — “I must follow the rules because they make sense for me, and also because all would be chaos if everybody stopped following rules” — doesn’t come early to the human brain. It comes with time and training, and the physical development and thickening of the gray matter in that frontal lobe.

Before that, Lanigan said, your fledgling frontal lobe just can’t compete with the excellent, early hardwiring of those emotion and quick-reaction areas. Result: Teenagers “aren’t able to think of all the factors they should. At that age, they may have gotten away from being completely egocentric, but they’re still feeling invincible,” Lanigan said. “There’s a lot going on in their decision-making, but the capacity to make really rational decisions is still limited.”

And while the newest science has found that the brain remains a building site for years longer than previously thought, it also remains true that a brain that spends lots of critical training time — those mid-teen years — strengthening that sense of invincibility isn’t likely to unlearn it. A teenager who repeats the thrill of blowing through a red light over and over again, lucking out and laughing each time, isn’t building up wisdom and restraint in the prefrontal cortex.

Lanigan laughingly cited a study that presented adolescents and adults two options: jumping off the edge of the Grand Canyon with a 50 percent chance of survival — or not. Nobody took the chance, but adolescents generally took “several seconds longer” to decide that the whole proposition was a loser. Scans of their brains showed activity in lots of different places — not just the underdeveloped frontal cortex — as they considered the idea. “It shows that their way of thinking about things is different,” Lanigan said.

According to the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, adolescents are prone to impulsive or even risky behaviors, misreading or misinterpreting social cues and emotions, and getting into accidents and fights. They’re less prone to (all together now, parents) thinking before acting.

None of which means your kid can’t make good decisions or tell right from wrong, the AACAP points out, nor does it mean that appropriate consequences for behavior aren’t, well, appropriate — in fact they are vital teaching tools that help train the brain, and the more consistent the better. But parents and teachers who soften their standards slightly with some understanding and patience for churning behind the scenes — between the ears, that is — are going to have an easier time of it. They’ll probably earn their adolescent’s appreciation too — if not immediately, then in the long run.

“Sixteen or so is a time when many parents just let go. Maybe they think they’ve done everything they can do,” said Kathy Bobula, who teaches early childhood education and psychology at Clark College. “But your child still needs your support and guidance at 16. You need to keep at it.”

Bomber pilots, football players

The things adolescents spend time doing, and loving to do, have a serious influence on their brains, and therefore their whole lives, as they age. That’s why Bobula loves it when students get into volunteerism — and hates it when they bring cellphones to class. “Adolescents who get involved in service learning learn that that’s normal and good. That’s what’s hooking up in the brain,” she said. But adolescents “who play video games all day, who just satisfy their transient desires all day, well, that’s what’s hooking up in the brain. They sure get good at that,” she laughed. “They develop great thumb control and eye-hand coordination and they’ll probably grow up to be great bomber pilots.

“But that’s at the expense of deeper thoughts and conversations, moral choices, relating to people,” Bobula said.

It’s also at the expense of deep, long-term focus, Bobula said. Science has found that people who do whatever they do with one eye always on their cellphone — or TV, or whatever electronic distraction you choose — are not doing it very well. “There’s a pretty strong body of research showing that we don’t multitask effectively,” Lanigan said. “You’re not performing as efficiently as you like to think you are.”

Drop that essay or project to check your messages or satisfy that irresistible craving for a video fix of a cute kitty. Think you have that same train of thought, the same level of concentration when you return to the task? No way, Bobula said.

It gets worse. Bobula pointed out all the head-injury research that’s been done lately on football players and war veterans and flatly declared: “You damage that frontal lobe part, the part that does self-regulation of all types, you wind up a real jerk. You won’t stop when the light turns red. You won’t necessarily stop yourself in all sorts of situations where it’s appropriate to stop.”

Drugs and alcohol affect the growing teen brain differently and more dramatically than the adult brain. In an interview with the television show “Frontline,” leading brain researcher Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health said it’s a “particularly cruel irony of nature … that this time when the brain is most vulnerable is also the time when teens are most likely to experiment with drugs or alcohol.” Giedd said, “It may not just be affecting their brains for that night or even for that weekend, but for the next 80 years of their life.”

Strong foundation

Is anything more painful for a teenager than getting up in the morning (or afternoon)?

“The way schools and society are structured, adolescents don’t get to follow their natural circadian rhythms,” Lanigan said.

“The data is in. We’re sending them to school sleep-deprived,” said Bobula. “Why do we make our kids’ lives fit the bus schedule? Why do schools make them work against, rather than with, their own bodies? Don’t make them go to school so early.”

That’s these two teachers’ advice for the American education system. Their advice for parents is equally common sense: establish closeness and communication early and often. Set reasonably strict levels of parental monitoring and kid responsibility — what Lanigan calls “a traditional parenting style. That will give you a strong foundation to build upon.” It means knowing what your teen is doing, and where, and with whom.

“Not necessarily directing what they’re doing, but at least knowing,” said Lanigan. “There’s a pretty big block of research about parental monitoring. It definitely shows better outcomes for children whose parents do a high level of monitoring.”

Bobula is totally into telling it like it is: “I’m such an advocate of informing adolescents what’s going on in their heads. You will make some wrong decisions. You may find yourself acting weird. You may find your emotions so strong they’re overwhelming. You may find high school horrible.”

It’s all a test of your parenting Zen. When does your kid need support and when independence? When do you lean in close and when do you pull back? “It varies by family. The parents are the best judges. They’ll have an instinct for what’s typical and what’s more alarming for their child,” Lanigan said.

“Typical teen development includes a phase when they’re going to need to individuate. They often pull away,” she said. “It can be very frightening for parents. But it’s right on schedule.”

Photo of Scott Hewitt
Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

14 Ways to Acquire Knowledge: A Timeless Guide from 1936

25 03 2014


“Writing, to knowledge, is a certified check.”

The quest for intellectual growth and self-improvement through education has occupied yesteryear’s luminaries like Bertrand Russelland modern-day thinkers like Sir Ken Robinsonand Noam Chomsky. In 1936, at the zenith of the Great Depression, the prolific self-help guru and famous eccentric James T. Manganpublished You Can Do Anything! (public library) — an enthusiastic and exclamation-heavy pep-manual for the art of living. Though Mangan was a positively kooky character — in 1948, he publicly claimed to own outer space and went on to found the micronation of Celestia — the book isn’t without merit.

Among its highlights is a section titled 14 Ways to Acquire Knowledge — a blueprint to intellectual growth, advocating for such previously discussed essentials as the importance of taking example from those who have succeededand organizing the information we encounter, the power of curiosity, theosmosis between learning and teaching, the importance of critical thinking(because, as Christopher Hitchens pithily put it“what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”), the benefits of writing things down, why you should let your opinions be fluid rather than rigid, the art of listening,the art of observation, and the very core of what it means to be human.



Consider the knowledge you already have — the things you really know you can do. They are the things you have done over and over; practiced them so often that they became second nature. Every normal person knows how to walk and talk. But he could never have acquired this knowledge without practice. For the young child can’t do the things that are easy to older people without first doing them over and over and over.

Most of us quit on the first or second attempt. But the man who is really going to be educated, who intends toknow, is going to stay with it until it is done. Practice!2. ASK

Any normal child, at about the age of three or four, reaches the asking period, the time when that quickly developing brain is most eager for knowledge. “When?” “Where?” “How?” “What?” and “Why?” begs the child — but all too often the reply is “Keep still!” “Leave me alone!” “Don’t be a pest!”

Those first bitter refusals to our honest questions of childhood all too often squelch our “Asking faculty.” We grow up to be men and women, still eager for knowledge, but afraid and ashamed to ask in order to get it.

Every person possessing knowledge is more than willing to communicate what he knows to any serious, sincere person who asks. The question never makes the asker seem foolish or childish — rather, to ask is to command the respect of the other person who in the act of helping you is drawn closer to you, likes you better and will go out of his way on any future occasion to share his knowledge with you.

Ask! When you ask, you have to be humble. You have to admit you don’t know! But what’s so terrible about that? Everybody knows that no man knows everything, and to ask is merely to let the other know that you are honest about things pertaining to knowledge.


You never learn much until you really want to learn. A million people have said: “Gee, I wish I were musical!” “If I only could do that!” or “How I wish I had a good education!” But they were only talking words — they didn’t mean it.

Desire is the foundation of all learning and you can only climb up the ladder of knowledge by desiring to learn.

If you don’t desire to learn you’re either a num-skull [sic] or a “know-it-all.” And the world wants nothing to do with either type of individual.


You may be surprised to hear that you already know a great deal! It’s all inside you — it’s all there — you couldn’t live as long as you have and not be full of knowledge.

Most of your knowledge, however — and this is the great difference between non-education and education — is not in shape to be used, you haven’t it on the tip of your tongue. It’s hidden, buried away down inside of you — and because you can’t see it, you think it isn’t there.

Knowledge is knowledge only when it takes a shape, when it can be put into words, or reduced to a principle — and it’s now up to you to go to work on your own gold mine, to refine the crude ore.


Any time you see something new or very special, if the thing is resting on the ground, as your examination and inspection proceeds, you find that you eventuallywalk around it. You desire to know the thing better by looking at it from all angles.

To acquire knowledge walk around the thing studied. The thing is not only what you touch, what you see; it has many other sides, many other conditions, many other relations which you cannot know until you study it from all angles.

The narrow mind stays rooted in one spot; the broad mind is free, inquiring, unprejudiced; it seeks to learn “both sides of the story.”

Don’t screen off from your own consciousness the bigger side of your work. Don’t be afraid you’ll harm yourself if you have to change a preconceived opinion. Have a free, broad, open mind! Be fair to the thing studied as well as to yourself. When it comes up for your examination, walk around it! The short trip will bring long knowledge.


The world honors the man who is eager to plant new seeds of study today so he may harvest a fresh crop of knowledge tomorrow. The world is sick of the man who is always harking back to the past and thinks everything wroth knowing has already been learned. … Respect the past, take what it offers, but don’t live in it.

To learn, experiment! Try something new. See what happens. Lindbergh experimented when he flew the Atlantic. Pasteur experimented with bacteria and made cow’s milk safe for the human race. Franklin experimented with a kite and introduced electricity.

The greatest experiment is nearly always a solo. The individual, seeking to learn, tries something new but only tries it on himself. If he fails, he has hurt only himself. If he succeeds he has made a discovery many people can use. Experiment only with your own time, your own money, your own labor. That’s the honest, sincere type of experiment. It’s rich. The cheap experiment is to use other people’s money, other people’s destinies, other people’s bodies as if they were guinea pigs.

  1. TEACH

If you would have knowledge, knowledge sure and sound, teach. Teach your children, teach your associates, teach your friends. In the very act of teaching, you will learn far more than your best pupil.

Knowledge is relative; you possess it in degrees. You know more about reading, writing, and arithmetic than your young child. But teach that child at every opportunity; try to pass on to him all you know, and the very attempt will produce a great deal more knowledge inside your own brain.

  1. READ

From time immemorial it has been commonly understood that the best way to acquire knowledge was to read. That is not true. Reading is only one way to knowledge, and in the writer’s opinion, not the best way. But you can surely learn from reading if you read in the proper manner.

What you read is important, but not all important. How you read is the main consideration. For if you knowhow to read, there’s a world of education even in the newspapers, the magazines, on a single billboard or a stray advertising dodger.

The secret of good reading is this: read critically!

Somebody wrote that stuff you’re reading. It was a definite individual, working with a pen, pencil or typewriter — the writing came from his mind and hisonly. If you were face to face with him and listening instead of reading, you would be a great deal more critical than the average reader is. Listening, you would weigh his personality, you would form some judgment about his truthfulness, his ability. But reading, you drop all judgment, and swallow his words whole — just as if the act of printing the thing made it true!

If you must read in order to acquire knowledge, read critically. Believe nothing till it’s understood, till it’s clearly proven.

  1. WRITE

To know it — write it! If you’re writing to explain, you’re explaining it to yourself! If you’re writing to inspire,you’re inspiring yourself! If you’re writing to record, you’re recording it on your own memory. How often you have written something down in order to be sure you would have a record of it, only to find that you never needed the written record because you had learned it by heart!

The men of the best memories are those who make notes, who write things down. They just don’t write to remember, they write to learn. And because they DO learn by writing, they seldom need to consult their notes, they have brilliant, amazing memories. How different from the glib, slipshod individual who is too proud or too lazy to write, who trusts everything to memory, forgets so easily, and possesses so little real knowledge.

Write! Writing, to knowledge, is a certified check. Youknow what you know once you have written it down!


You have a pair of ears — use them! When the other man talks, give him a chance. Pay attention. If you listen you may hear something useful to you. If you listen you may receive a warning that is worth following. If you listen, you may earn the respect of those whose respect you prize.

Pay attention to the person speaking. Contemplate the meaning of his words, the nature of his thoughts. Grasp and retain the truth.

Of all the ways to acquire knowledge, this way requires least effort on your part. You hardly have to do any work. You are bound to pick up information. It’s easy, it’s surefire.


Keep your eyes open. There are things happening, all around you, all the time. The scene of events is interesting, illuminating, full of news and meaning. It’s a great show — an impressive parade of things worth knowing. Admission is free — keep your eyes open.

There are only two kinds of experience: the experience of ourselves and the experience of others. Our own experience is slow, labored, costly, and often hard to bear. The experience of others is a ready-made set of directions on knowledge and life. Their experience is free; we need suffer none of their hardships; we may collect on all their good deeds. All we have to do isobserve!

Observe! Especially the good man, the valorous deed. Observe the winner that you yourself may strive to follow that winning example and learn the scores of different means and devices that make success possible.

Observe! Observe the loser that you may escape his mistakes, avoid the pitfalls that dragged him down.

Observe the listless, indifferent, neutral people who do nothing, know nothing, are nothing. Observe them and then differ from them.


Order is Heaven’s first law. And the only good knowledge is orderly knowledge! You must put your information and your thoughts in order before you can effectively handle your own knowledge. Otherwise you will jump around in conversation like a grasshopper, your arguments will be confused and distributed, your brain will be in a dizzy whirl all the time.


A definition is a statement about a thing which includes everything the thing is and excludes everything it is not.

A definition of a chair must include every chair, whether it be kitchen chair, a high chair, a dentist’s chair, or the electric chair, It must exclude everything which isn’t a chair, even those things which come close, such as a stool, a bench, a sofa.

I am sorry to state that until you can so define chair or door (or a thousand other everyday familiar objects)you don’t really know what these things are. You have the ability to recognize them and describe them but you can’t tell what their nature is. Your knowledge is notexact.


Animals have knowledge. But only men can reason.The better you can reason the farther you separate yourself from animals.

The process by which you reason is known as logic. Logic teaches you how to derive a previously unknown truth from the facts already at hand. Logic teaches you how to be sure whether what you think is true is really true.

Logic is the supreme avenue to intellectual truth. Don’t ever despair of possessing a logical mind. You don’t have to study it for years, read books and digest a mountain of data. All you have to remember is one word — compare.

Compare all points in a proposition. Note the similarity— that tells you something new. Note the difference — that tells you something new. Then take the new things you’ve found and check them against established laws or principles.

This is logic. This is reason. This is knowledge in its highest form.

The rest of You Can Do Anything! goes on to explore such facets of success as the fundamentals of personal achievement, manual and mental production, the art of the deadline, selling by giving, mastering personal energy, the necessary elements of ambition, and more.

How To Make Your Kids Smarter: 10 Steps Backed By Science

25 03 2014
Young boy writes math equations on chalkboard
Justin Lewis—Getty Images

1) Music Lessons

Plain and simple: research show music lessons make kids smarter:

Compared with children in the control groups,children in the music groups exhibited greater increases in full-scale IQ. The effect was relatively small, but it generalized across IQ subtests, index scores, and a standardized measure of academic achievement.

In fact musical training helps everyoneyoung and old:

A growing body of research finds musical training gives students learning advantages in the classroom. Now a Northwestern University study finds musical training can benefit Grandma, too, by offsetting some of the deleterious effects of aging.

(More on what the music you love says about you here.)

2) The Dumb Jock Is A Myth

Dumb jocks are dumb because they spend more time on the field than in the library. But what if you make sure your child devotes time to both?

Being in good shape increases your ability to learn. After exercise people pick up new vocabulary words 20% faster.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

Indeed, in a 2007 study of humans, German researchers found that people learn vocabulary words 20 percent faster following exercise than they did before exercise, and that the rate of learning correlated directly with levels of BDNF.

A 3 month exercise regimen increased bloodflow to the part of the brain focused on memory and learning by 30%.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

In his study, Small put a group of volunteers on a three-month exercise regimen and then took pictures of their brains… What he saw was that the capillary volume in the memory area of the hippocampus increased by 30 percent, a truly remarkable change.

(More on how exercise can make you and your kids smarter and happier here.)

3) Don’t Read To Your Kids, Read With Them

Got a little one who is learning to read? Don’t let them just stare at the pictures in a book while you do all the reading.
Call attention to the words. Read with them, not to them.Research shows it helps build their reading skills:

…when shared book reading is enriched with explicit attention to the development of children’s reading skills and strategies, then shared book reading is an effective vehicle for promoting the early literacy ability even of disadvantaged children.

(More on things most parents do wrong here.)

4) Sleep Deprivation Makes Kids Stupid

Missing an hour of sleep turns a sixth grader’s brain into that of a fourth grader.

Via NurtureShock:

“A loss of one hour of sleep is equivalent to [the loss of] two years of cognitive maturation and development,” Sadeh explained.

There is a correlation between grades and average amount of sleep.

Via NurtureShock:

Teens who received A’s averaged about fifteen more minutes sleep than the B students, who in turn averaged fifteen more minutes than the C’s, and so on. Wahlstrom’s data was an almost perfect replication of results from an earlier study of over 3,000 Rhode Island high schoolers by Brown’s Carskadon. Certainly, these are averages, but the consistency of the two studies stands out. Every fifteen minutes counts.

(More on how to sleep better here.)

5) IQ Isn’t Worth Much Without Self-Discipline

Self-discipline beats IQ at predicting who will be successful in life.

From Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business:

Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success… Students who exerted high levels of willpower were more likely to earn higher grades in their classes and gain admission into more selective schools. They had fewer absences and spent less time watching television and more hours on homework. “Highly self-disciplined adolescents outperformed their more impulsive peers on every academic-performance variable,” the researchers wrote. “Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ. Self-discipline also predicted which students would improve their grades over the course of the school year, whereas IQ did not.… Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.”

Grades have more to do with conscientiousness than raw smarts.

Via How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character:

…conscientiousness was the trait that best predicted workplace success. What intrigues Roberts about conscientiousness is that it predicts so many outcomes that go far beyond the workplace. People high in conscientiousness get better grades in school and college; they commit fewer crimes; and they stay married longer. They live longer – and not just because they smoke and drink less. They have fewer strokes, lower blood pressure, and a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.

Who does best in life? Kids with grit.

Via Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

The best predictor of success, the researchers found, was the prospective cadets’ ratings on a noncognitive, nonphysical trait known as “grit”—defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”

(More on how to improve self-discipline here.)

6) Learning Is An Active Process

Baby Einstein and braintraining games don’t work.
In fact, there’s reason to believe they make kids dumber.

Via Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five:

The products didn’t work at all. They had no positive effect on the vocabularies of the target audience, infants 17-24 months. Some did actual harm. For every hour per day the children spent watching certain baby DVD’s and videos, the infants understood an average of six to eight fewer words than infants who did not watch them.

Real learning isn’t passive, it’s active.

What does Dan Coyle, author of The Talent Code recommend? Stop merely reading and test yourself:

Our brains evolved to learn by doing things, not by hearing about them. This is one of the reasons that, for a lot of skills, it’s much better to spend about two thirds of your time testing yourself on it rather than absorbing it. There’s a rule of two thirds. If you want to, say, memorize a passage, it’s better to spend 30 percent of your time reading it, and the other 70 percent of your time testing yourself on that knowledge.

(More on how to teach your child to be a hard worker in school here.)

7) Treats Can Be A Good Thing — At The Right Time

Overall, it would be better if kids ate healthy all the time. Research shows eating makes a difference in children’s grades:

Everybody knows you should eat breakfast the day of a big test. High-carb, high-fiber, slow-digesting foods like oatmeal are best, research shows. But what you eat a week in advance matters, too. When 16 college students were tested on attention and thinking speed, then fed a five-day high-fat, low-carb diet heavy on meat, eggs, cheese and cream and tested again, their performance declined.

There are always exceptions. No kid eats healthy all the time. But the irony is that kids often get “bad” foods at the wrong time.
Research shows caffeine and sugar can be brain boosters:

Caffeine and glucose can have beneficial effects on cognitive performance… Since these areas have been related to the sustained attention and working memory processes, results would suggest that combined caffeine and glucose could increase the efficiency of the attentional system.

They’re also potent rewards kids love.

So if kids are going to occasionally eat candy and soda maybe it’s better to give it to them while they study then when they’re relaxing.

(More on the best way for kids to study here.)

8) Happy Kids = Successful Kids

Happier kids are more likely to turn into successful, accomplished adults.

Via Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents:

…happiness is a tremendous advantage in a world that emphasizes performance. On average, happy people are more successful than unhappy people at both work and love. They get better performance reviews, have more prestigious jobs, and earn higher salaries. They are more likely to get married, and once married, they are more satisfied with their marriage.

And what’s the first step in creating happier kids? Being a happy parent.

(More on how to raise happy kids here.)

9) Peer Group Matters

Your genetics and the genetics of your partner have a huge effect on your kids. But the way you raise your kids?
Not nearly as much.

Via Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference:

On things like measures of intellectual ability and certain aspects of personality, the biological children are fairly similar to their parents. For the adopted kids, however, the results are downright strange. Their scores have nothing whatsoever in common with their adoptive parents: these children are no more similar in their personality or intellectual skills to the people who raised them, fed them, clothed them, read to them, taught them, and loved them for sixteen years than they are to any two adults taken at random off the street.

So what does have an enormous affect on your children’s behavior? Their peer group.

We usually only talk about peer pressure when it’s a negative but more often than not, it’s a positive.

Living in a nice neighborhood, going to solid schools and making sure your children hang out with good kids can make a huge difference.

What’s the easiest way for a college student to improve their GPA? Pick a smart roommate.

Via The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work:

One study of Dartmouth College students by economist Bruce Sacerdote illustrates how powerful this influence is. He found that when students with low grade-point averages simply began rooming with higher-scoring students, their grade-point averages increased. These students, according to the researchers, “appeared to infect each other with good and bad study habits—such that a roommate with a high grade-point average would drag upward the G.P.A. of his lower-scoring roommate.”

(More on the how others affect your behavior without you realizing ithere.)

10) Believe In Them

Believing your kid is smarter than average makes a difference.

When teachers were told certain kids were sharper, those kids did better — even though the kids were selected at random.

Via The Heart of Social Psychology: A Backstage View of a Passionate Science:

…Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson (1968) did the same study in a classroom, telling elementary school teachers that they had certain students in their class who were “academic spurters.” In fact, these students were selected at random. Absolutely nothing else was done by the researchers to single out these children. Yet by the end of the school year, 30 percent of the the children arbitrarily named as spurters had gained an average of 22 IQ points, and almost all had gained at least 10 IQ points.

Sum Up

  1. Music Lessons
  2. The Dumb Jock Is A Myth
  3. Don’t Read To Your Kids, Read With Them
  4. Sleep Deprivation Makes Kids Stupid
  5. IQ Isn’t Worth Much Without Self-Discipline
  6. Learning Is An Active Process
  7. Treats Can Be a Good Thing — At The Right Time
  8. Happy Kids = Successful Kids
  9. Peer Group Matters
  10. Believe In Them

One final note: Intelligence isn’t everything. Without ethics and empathy really smart people can be scary.

As P.J. O’Rourke once said:

Smart people don’t start many bar fights. But stupid people don’t build many hydrogen bombs.

So if you want to learn how to raise a happier kid go here and a more well-behaved kid go here.

I hope this helps your child be brilliant.


7 Crippling Parenting Behaviors That Keep Children From Growing Into Leaders

8 03 2014

 While I spend my professional time now as a career success coach, writer, and leadership trainer, I was a marriage and family therapist in my past, and worked for several years with couples, families, and children. Through that experience, I witnessed a very wide array of both functional and dysfunctional parenting behaviors. As a parent myself, I’ve learned that all the wisdom and love in the world doesn’t necessarily protect you from parenting in ways that hold your children back from thriving, gaining independence and

becoming the leaders they have the potential to be. canstockphoto3580131

I was intrigued, then, to catch up with leadership expert Dr. Tim Elmore and learn more about how we as parents are failing our children today — coddling and crippling them — and keeping them from becoming leaders they are destined to be. Tim is a best-selling author of more than 25 books, including Generation iY: Our Last Chance to Save Their Future,Artificial Maturity: Helping Kids Meet the Challenges of Becoming Authentic Adults, and the Habitudes® series. He is Founder and President of Growing Leaders, an organization dedicated to mentoring today’s young people to become the leaders of tomorrow.

Tim had this to share about the 7 damaging parenting behaviors that keep children from becoming leaders – of their own lives and of the world’s enterprises:

1. We don’t let our children experience risk

We live in a world that warns us of danger at every turn. The “safety first” preoccupation enforces our fear of losing our kids, so we do everything we can to protect them. It’s our job after all, but we have insulated them from healthy risk-taking behavior and it’s had an adverse effect. Psychologists in Europe have discovered that if a child doesn’t play outside and is never allowed to experience a skinned knee, they frequently have phobias as adults. Kids need to fall a few times to learn it’s normal; teens likely need to break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend to appreciate the emotional maturity that lasting relationships require. If parents remove risk from children’s lives, we will likely experience high arrogance and low self-esteem in our growing leaders.

2. We rescue too quickly

Today’s generation of young people has not developed some of the life skills kids did 30 years ago because adults swoop in and take care of problems for them. When we rescue too quickly and over-indulge our children with “assistance,” we remove the need for them to navigate hardships and solve problems on their own. It’s parenting for the short-term and it sorely misses the point of leadership—to equip our young people to do it without help. Sooner or later, kids get used to someone rescuing them: “If I fail or fall short, an adult will smooth things over and remove any consequences for my misconduct.” When in reality, this isn’t even remotely close to how the world works, and therefore it disables our kids from becoming competent adults.

3. We rave too easily

4. We let guilt get in the way of leading well

Your child does not have to love you every minute. Your kids will get over the disappointment, but they won’t get over the effects of being spoiled. So tell them “no” or “not now,” and let them fight for what they really value and need. As parents, we tend to give them what they want when rewarding our children, especially with multiple kids. When one does well in something, we feel it’s unfair to praise and reward that one and not the other. This is unrealistic and misses an opportunity to enforce the point to our kids that success is dependent upon our own actions and good deeds. Be careful not to teach them a good grade is rewarded by a trip to the mall. If your relationship is based on material rewards, kids will experience neither intrinsic motivation nor unconditional love.

5. We don’t share our past mistakes

Healthy teens are going to want to spread their wings and they’ll need to try things on their own. We as adults must let them, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help them navigate these waters. Share with them the relevant mistakes you made when you were their age in a way that helps them learn to make good choices. (Avoid negative “lessons learned” having to do with smoking, alcohol, illegal drugs, etc.) Also, kids must prepare to encounter slip-ups and face the consequences of their decisions. Share how you felt when you faced a similar experience, what drove your actions, and the resulting lessons learned. Because we’re not the only influence on our kids, we must be the best influence.

6. We mistake intelligence, giftedness and influence for maturity

Intelligence is often used as a measurement of a child’s maturity, and as a result parents assume an intelligent child is ready for the world. That’s not the case. Some professional athletes and Hollywood starlets, for example, possess unimaginable talent, but still get caught in a public scandal. Just because giftedness is present in one aspect of a child’s life, don’t assume it pervades all areas. There is no magic “age of responsibility” or a proven guide as to when a child should be given specific freedoms, but a good rule of thumb is to observe other children the same age as yours. If you notice that they are doing more themselves than your child does, you may be delaying your child’s independence.

7. We don’t practice what we preach

As parents, it is our responsibility to model the life we want our children to live. To help them lead a life of character and become dependable and accountable for their words and actions. As the leaders of our homes, we can start by only speaking honest words – white lies will surface and slowly erode character. Watch yourself in the little ethical choices that others might notice, because your kids will notice too. If you don’t cut corners, for example, they will know it’s not acceptable for them to either. Show your kids what it means to give selflessly and joyfully by volunteering for a service project or with a community group. Leave people and places better than you found them, and your kids will take note and do the same.

Why do parents engage in these behaviors (what are they afraid of if they don’t)? Do these behaviors come from fear or from poor understanding of what strong parenting (with good boundaries) is?

Tim shares:

“I think both fear and lack of understanding play a role here, but it leads with the fact that each generation of parents is usually compensating for something the previous generation did. The primary adults in kids’ lives today have focused on now rather than later. It’s about their happiness today not their readiness tomorrow. I suspect it’s a reaction. Many parents today had Moms and Dads who were all about getting ready for tomorrow: saving money, not spending it, and getting ready for retirement. In response, many of us bought into the message: embrace the moment. You deserve it. Enjoy today. And we did. For many, it resulted in credit card debt and the inability to delay gratification. This may be the crux of our challenge. The truth is, parents who are able to focus on tomorrow, not just today, produce better results.”

How can parents move away from these negative behaviors (without having to hire a family therapist to help)?

Here’s a start:

1. Talk over the issues you wish you would’ve known about adulthood.
2. Allow them to attempt things that stretch them and even let them fail.
3. Discuss future consequences if they fail to master certain disciplines.
4. Aid them in matching their strengths to real-world problems.
5. Furnish projects that require patience, so they learn to delay gratification.
6. Teach them that life is about choices and trade-offs; they can’t do everything.
7. Initiate (or simulate) adult tasks like paying bills or making business deals.
8. Introduce them to potential mentors from your network.
9. Help them envision a fulfilling future, and then discuss the steps to get there.
10. Celebrate progress they make toward autonomy and responsibility.

How are you parenting your children? Are you sacrificing their long-term growth for short-term comfort?

(For more about developing our children’s leadership capabilities, visit Tim Elmore and Growing Leaders and follow @GrowingLeaders and@TimElmore on Twitter.)


Social Board Games, Part 0: Introduction

5 03 2014

Here is a great article I found for social games


As some of you already know, I am a mathematics professor at a small school in Indiana (Trine University). Despite our size, we have a very large engineering program – but more importantly, we have a class on the books called “Social Board Games”! The person who usually teaches it no longer has time, so he suggsted I take it up. No need to ask twice!

The course description says that “The object of this activity class is to expose students to the history, rules, strategies and fundamentals of a variety of social board games including Chess, Checkers, Backgammon, Cranium, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, Taboo and Monopoly.” Or, in the words of another professor, the point of the course is “to get the guys in engineering to actually talk to girls before they graduate.”

Of course, since I’m the kind of guy who runs a board gaming blog, I threw all of this out the window. While games like Pictionary and Taboo have some good social interaction and are closer to my aims for the course, games like Chess and Checkers are played in pairs and in virtual silence, and Monopoly and Scrabble can be frustrating and longish. More importantly though, I wanted to have a central goal for the course. I want students to actually learn a thing or two. The course is just 1-credit pass/fail, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a waste of time.

When I think back to my experiences in college, such as our “freshmen college experience” course that everyone college has now, I think of things I would have like to have known then, and what I want students to know now as a professor. The most important thing that came to mind was that I want students to take control of their own learning. (It amazes me the extent to which students who are confused in class will refuse to ask a question, for fear of looking stupid.) This led to me thinking about a variety of mental health issues that people don’t even realize are “issues” until it gets them fired from a job. My wife is a licensed mental health counselor, so with her help I came up with a list of ideas I wanted students to engage with and the games with which to do it. (In the future, I hope to try and get this course to count as a Social Science credit.)

What has been most amazing so far is the generosity of publishers and retailers alike. Since I was rebuilding a course from the ground up for which we already had materials (the old games), it was a safe assumption that I would have no funding from the university for new games. However, almost all of the publishers that I contacted were willing to step in and send some games to use in the course, and only a few were completely unresponsive. CoolStuffInc stepped in when I really wanted to use a game from a publisher I could not seem to contact, and I can’t be thankful enough. MeepleTown is not sponsored at all, by any publisher or retailer, but on a personal level I really want to thank (in no particular order) Rio Grande Games, Days of Wonder, Steve Jackson Games, R&R Games, FoxMind Games, North Star Games, Gamewright Games, Gryphon/Eagle Games, and Indie Boards & Cards, along with CoolStuffInc. This class as I envision it would not be possible without the generosity of every single one of you.

I am not going to share the entire syllabus, but I am going to share the flow of the course and the kind of assignments the students will have. This is a Wednesday night class, and each week students will be playing a game after I lecture a bit beforehand about the concept in mind as well as the ruleset. After about 90 minutes of play, we’ll recap the concept I want them to get and talk about how it appeared within the game. Then they have to go home and write a one-page paper on the importance of the mental health concept and how it appeared in the game. I’ll grade these out of 10 points (5 for grammar, 5 for substance) and they simply need to average a 6/10 on their assignments to pass the course. I hope to collect some important thoughts from these as I blog each week about the course, and maybe talk at some conferences about the importance of play, both psychologically and mathematically. (All that mathematical researchers do all day is goof around until something works. Play is of utmost importance.)

To pick games for this course, I needed them to satisfy some pretty important criteria. They needed to have a relatively short playtime – some games like Ticket to Ride will take a bit longer, but I was really aiming for 20-30 minute games that could be played several times in a row. It was also very important that they had a simple ruleset – the toughest game is probably Dominion, but I’ll be setting out the simplest Kingdom Cards in the basic set when they play, and that’ll be towards the end of the semester. I’ll also be walking around the room to answer rules questions as they play. Most importantly, they had to model some sort of important mental health concept that would be useful later in life as well as right now in college. To that end, the first unit is the most important one for college: realizing that it’s okay to be a little ignorant, and that everyone is a little ignorant too. The point of college is to become educated, which you can’t do if you won’t admit that youaren’t completely educated. The second unit is about communication, whose importance is hopefully obvious, although we will focus on several different types of communication. The third unit is on applying strategic thinking to life in general (which is, of course, a game, although we’re all a little fuzzy on the rules and victory conditions). The last unit is on separating play from reality – students (and even children) need to learn not to huff and puff and scream and stomp out of the room when they lose when they are still young, lest they act the same way at a board meeting.

I’ll talk more about the individual games chosen in detail as they come up each week, and I’ll also talk about responses from the students and what I lectured about. But for now, here is the list of games along with the mental health goals and writing prompts. (The game synopses are straight from BoardGameGeek and included for the students, who have probably never played or heard of most of these, since my Finite Math students at IUPUI did not even know the content of a deck of standard playing cards.) Check back next Friday for Part 1!

UNIT 1: Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

The goal of this unit is for students to get comfortable with their own limitations. No one – even a genius – knows that much about the world compared to everything there is to know, and not everyone has the same skill set. It’s okay to be wrong or not know something! It’s more than okay to ask a question during classes! These games are meant to illustrate that.

TelestrationsWeek 1 (1/8) Telestrations

Game Synopsis: Telestrations is the award winning, laugh-out-loud party game that has players simultaneously draw what they see, then guess what they saw to reveal hilarious and unpredictable outcomes. In this fun, modern twist on the classic “telephone game,” there are multiple words being passed around between players, with everyone sketching and guessing at the same time! But the real fun and laughter is the big reveal, where players get their own books back and get to share how “this” became “that”!

Mental Health Goal: Learning to laugh at yourself.

Focus for Review: Were your drawings guessed correctly? When the meaning was entirely lost, was everyone (including you) able to laugh at the errors? How can you apply those aspects of the game to failures in everyday life?

wwfamilyWeek 2 (1/15) Wits & Wagers Family

Game SynopsisWits & Wagers is the trivia game you can win without knowing any trivia! All you do is bet on the answer you think is the closest. Get lucky and your team will be cheering like they hit the jackpot!

Mental Health Goal: Learning to properly assess how knowledgeable other people are.

Focus for Review: When answers revealed, was your answer ever far from the rest? How did players react to “out there” answers? Did anyone lose self-confidence for that reason? Was an “out there” answer ever right? Were ever you afraid to bet on your own answer, but then it turned out to be right? How would you apply those aspects of this game to real-life situations?

faunaWeek 3 (1/22) Fauna

Game Synopsis: Do you know where the panda lives (… you most likely know)? Do you know where the babirusa lives (… you are less sure about that)? Some of us are not entirely sure what a babirusa is? In Fauna, you are not expected to know all the answers, simply gather your wits and make an educated guess. You are right on target? Great! You are close? That’s good too, since you score partial points. Playing Fauna involves some fun betting for points, but don’t get cocky, as this may cost you your hide!

Mental Health Goal: Learning to strategize and assess a situation with imperfect knowledge.

Focus for Review:  A big difference between this game and Wits & Wagers is the way you play the game on the board. Did you ever make a tactical move that wasn’t really related to what you know? Were you able to still strategize and accomplish things without knowing exactly what the right answer was? How did you use what you thought other players knew? How could this idea be applied in a real-life situation?

timesupWeek 4 (1/29) Time’s Up!

Game Synopsis: Time’s Up! is a party game for teams of two or more players (best with teams of two). The same set of famous names is used for each of three rounds. In each round, one member of a team tries to get his teammates to guess as many names as possible in 30 seconds. In round 1, almost any kind of clue is allowed. In round 2 no more than one word can be used in each clue (but unlimited sounds and gestures are permitted). In round 3, no words are allowed at all. Time’s Up! is based on the public domain game known as Celebrities.

Mental Health Goal: Being comfortable with acting like a fool (in an appropriate situation).

Focus for Review:  Did you have trouble “loosening up” and acting silly in this game? Why or why not? Do you think that the ability to act silly is an actual, important real-life skill? Why or why not?

 Were you able to get your teammates guess the correct words? When you were not able to use words, how were you able to still indicate the card? Were you able to reference what happened in the previous rounds? How could you use this to communicate in real life?

UNIT 2: Communicating Effectively

The goal of this unit is to get students to communicate effectively with each other. This means working together as a team, as well as learning to interpret and use both verbal and nonverbal communication.

Week 5 (2/5) Dixit

dixitGame Synopsis: Every picture tells a story – but what story will your picture tell? Dixit is the lovingly illustrated game of creative guesswork, where your imagination unlocks the tale. In this award-winning board game, players will use the beautiful imagery on their cards to bluff their opponents and guess which image matches the story. Guessing right is only half the battle – to really succeed, you’ll have to get your friends to decide that your card tells the story!

Mental Health Goal: Making mental and emotional connections with strangers and acquaintances.

Focus for Review: Was it difficult to make up appropriate clues? How did you respond when your clue was too easy, too hard, or just right? Were you able to make mental or emotional connections with other players via the clues? How can you apply this idea to real life social situations with new people?

forbislandWeek 6 (2/12) Forbidden Island

Game Synopsis: Dare to discover Forbidden Island! Join a team of fearless adventurers on a do-or-die mission to capture four sacred treasures from the ruins of this perilous paradise. Your team will have to work together and make some pulse-pounding maneuvers, as the island will sink beneath every step! Race to collect the treasures and make a triumphant escape before you are swallowed into the watery abyss!

Mental Health Goal: Working together as a team.

Focus for Review: The game requires that you cooperate with other players to win. Did anyone try to be the “alpha player” and tell everyone what to do? How did you decide on what actions to take? What was different when you played with hidden cards? How does this correspond to working on a team or a committee at a real job, or on a group project? Did you win or lose? Why do you think you won or lost? What lessons did you take away from playing the game?

hanabi_productshotWeek 7 (2/19) Hanabi

Game Synopsis: An intriguing and innovative card game. Race against the clock to build a dazzling fireworks finale! Trouble is, you can see the cards that everyone holds…except your own.  Working together, you must give and receive vital information in order to play your cards in the proper launch sequence. Build and light each firework correctly to win the game and avoid a fizzling fiasco!

Mental Health Goal: Learning to properly intonate and infer silent communication.

Focus for Review: Were you able to correctly guess what your teammates were trying to say? Did they infer what you wanted them to when you gave clues? What changed when you did not allow intonation? What are some real-life situations where you need to pick up on silent clues?

labocaWeek 8 (2/26) La Boca

Game Synopsis:  In shifting teams of two that sit across from one another, players try to create skylines on challenge cards – but the players can see the completed image only from their point of view, so they must consult with one another constantly to make sure each colored block ends up in the right location while racing against the timer. The faster the players complete their building, the more points they score. Then the next team takes a seat, breaks down the blocks, then begins building anew. Whoever has the most points after a certain number of rounds will stand atop La Boca and glory in the cheers of the Argentinian public!

Mental Health Goal: Communicating effectively under pressure.

Focus for Review: Now that you have communicated with your classmates for a few weeks, was this easier or harder other communication games? Do you think that made a difference? Were you able to communicate under pressure? Did you work better with some teammates than others? Why or why not?

UNIT 3: Applying Strategy to Real Life:

So far, many of the games we have played have been party games, and maybe not what people typically think of when they think of board games. In this unit, we will play some strategy-based board games that will challenge your brain, but more importantly, we’ll talk about how to apply strategy to the game of life (metaphorically, not the board game Life).

Week 9 (3/12) Ticket to Ride

ttrGame Synopsis: Ticket to Ride is a cross-country train adventure in which players collect and play matching train cards to claim railway routes connecting cities throughout North America. The longer the routes, the more points they earn. Additional points come to those who can fulfill their Destination Tickets by connecting two distant cities, and to the player who builds the longest continuous railway.

Mental Health Goal: Learning to adapt your strategy after short-term setbacks.

Focus for Review: Did someone ever claim a route that you wanted? Did you claim a spot someone else wanted? What happened afterwards? Were you able to recover and do your best, anyway? How did you react to winning or losing?

Week 10 (3/19) Dominion

DominionGame Synopsis: In Dominion, each player starts with an identical, very small deck of cards. In the center of the table is a selection of other cards the players can “buy” as they can afford them. Through their selection of cards to buy, and how they play their hands as they draw them, the players construct their deck on the fly, striving for the most efficient path to the precious victory points by game end.

Dominion is not a CCG, but the play of the game is similar to the construction and play of a CCG deck. The game comes with 500 cards. You select 10 of the 25 Kingdom card types to include in any given play—leading to immense variety.

Mental Health Goal: Learning to understand long-term consequences of your actions.

Focus for Review: How often did you see a card that you bought early? What was different about a card you bought in the first few turns, compared to the cards you bought at the end of the game? When do you think you should buy the action and money cards – early, or at the end? What about the victory cards? How does this idea of a game decision having long-term consequences translate into real life? As you approach the end of the game, the consequences of your choices don’t last as long – is there an analog to this in real life? Why or why not?

Week 11 (3/26) Skull & Roses, Coup

skullGame Synopsis: Skull & Roses is the quintessence of bluffing, a game in which everything is played in the players’ heads. Skull & Roses is not a game of luck; it’s a game of poker face and meeting eyes.

In Coup, you are head of a family in an Italian city-state, a city run by a weak and corrupt court. You need to manipulate, bluff and bribe your way to power. Your object is to destroy the influence of all the other families, forcing them into exile. Only one family will survive…

Mental Health Goal: Understanding the moral, psychological, and strategic implications of lying and bluffing.

coupsmallFocus for Review: How often did you and your opponents lie in these games? Was it absolutely necessary to tell some lies to win? Were you comfortable with doing so? Do you think it is ‘okay’ to lie to get ahead? On the other hand, is it sometimes correct or even moral to withhold truth? Is it lying to tell the truth in a way that paints it as a lie? Is it important to be able to recognize a liar when you see one? Can this be done without lying yourself and putting yourself in a liar’s shoes?

UNIT 4: Emotions During Gaming

We’ve all been there. Someone won the last game, so you don’t want to cooperate with them in this game. Someone attacked you within the game, so you want to punch them in the face. The goal of this unit is to get students comfortable with competition, so that they can properly separate play from reality, and deal with competition at their future jobs.

Week 12 (4/2) Hearts

heartsGame Synopsis: Hearts is a trick taking, standard deck playing card game, without trumps, which has been played popularly for generations and has many variations. The object is to avoid capturing hearts at one (1) point apiece and (in the most commonly played version today) the queen of spades, at thirteen (13) points, the card on which the whole game pivots. But to make it interesting, it is also possible to “shoot the moon,” taking all the hearts and the queen, a coup that gives 26 points to each of your opponents!

Mental Health Goal: Separating frustration and “mean” play within a game from the reality outside of the game.

Focus for Review: Did you ever feel targeted or attacked during the game? How did you react? What would you do in a social situation where you became angry because of the game being played? What’s a good way to avoid getting in this kind of situation in the first place?

Week 13 (4/9), Part 1 Zombie Dice

zombiediceGame Synopsis: You are a zombie. You want braaains. More brains than any of your zombie buddies. Zombie Dice is fast and easy for any zombie fan (or the whole zombie family). The 13 custom dice are your victims. Push your luck to eat their brains, but stop rolling before the shotgun blasts end your turn! Two or more can play. Each game takes 10 to 20 minutes, and can be taught in a single round.

Mental Health Goal: Learning firsthand the risks of “gambler’s logic.”

Focus for Review: Did you ever get greedy while rolling, and refuse to stop? If it paid off, did you begin to think that that is “okay” to always do? If you busted after being greedy, how did that make you feel? How do the experiences you had during the game apply to real-life gambling?

Week 13 (4/9), Part 2 For Sale

forsaleGame Synopsis: Bid and bluff your way to purchase the most valuable real estate for the lowest amount of money. Then turn around and sell those houses (and shacks) for cold hard cash. Be the richest mogul at the end of the game to win this Stefan Dorra classic. Considered one of the finest bidding games of all time, For Sale has a devoted following of fans that is about to grow much, much larger.

Mental Health Goal: Learning when to back down from a “fight.”

Focus for Review: You see it quite often in television and movies – someone is angry about being overbid and won’t back down from an auction. Did this happen in your games? Did you feel the urge to overpay for a property because someone outbid you? How do you calm yourself down and convince yourself to walk away? How can this be applied to real life?

Week 14 (4/16) Bohnanza

bohnanzaGame Synopsis: This great card game is about planting, trading, and selling beans – 11 kinds of beans! Players try to collect large sets of beans to sell for gold. There is limited growing space and always new beans to plant. To avoid planting unwanted beans, players trade them to other players who want them for their bean fields

Mental Health Goal: Balancing cooperation with competition.

Focus for Review: How often did you trade or donate within the game? How shrewd were you and the other players? How did cooperating and trading work into your strategy and/or the strategy of the winners? How important was the emotional metagame (the game outside the game)? What kinds of situations in real life require you to cooperate with your competitors?


Week 15 (4/23) The Resistance

resistance2ndGame SynopsisThe Resistance is a very intense social deduction game for 5-10 players.  While it shares similarities with games like Werewolf,Mafia and even Battlestar Galactica, it has many very unique features such as a quick 30 minute play time, no moderator required and no player elimination.

Mental Health Goal: Learning how to read people’s tells, and to recover from misguided trust.

Focus for Review: Were you loyal or a spy? How did this affect your actions? What did you do to figure out whom to trust, or to trick people into trusting you? What verbal and nonverbal clues did you use? How did you and the other players react when the truth was revealed? Was anyone upset? Were you able to pretend to know things, or otherwise make use of your partial information? How could you apply what happened in the game to real-life situations?

Success in Mathematics Study Tips

4 01 2014

Tips on how to study mathematics, how to approach problem-solving, how to study for and take tests, and when and how to get help.

Math Study Skills

Active Study vs. Passive Study

Be actively involved in managing the learning process, the mathematics and your study time:

  • Take responsibility for studying, recognizing what you do and don’t know, and knowing how to get your Instructor to help you with what you don’t know.
  • Attend class every day and take complete notes. Instructors formulate test questions based on material and examples covered in class as well as on those in the text.
  • Be an active participant in the classroom. Get ahead in the book; try to work some of the problems before they are covered in class. Anticipate what the Instructor’s next step will be.
  • Ask questions in class! There are usually other students wanting to know the answers to the same questions you have.
  • Go to office hours and ask questions. The Instructor will be pleased to see that you are interested, and you will be actively helping yourself.
  • Good study habits throughout the semester make it easier to study for tests.


Studying Math is Different from Studying Other Subjects

  • Math is learned by doing problems. Do the homework. The problems help you learn the formulas and techniques you do need to know, as well as improve your problem-solving prowess.
  • A word of warning: Each class builds on the previous ones, all semester long. You must keep up with the Instructor: attend class, read the text and do homework every day. Falling a day behind puts you at a disadvantage. Falling a week behind puts you in deep trouble.
  • A word of encouragement: Each class builds on the previous ones, all semester long. You’re always reviewing previous material as you do new material. Many of the ideas hang together. Identifying and learning the key concepts means you don’t have to memorize as much.


College Math is Different from High School Math

A College math class meets less often and covers material at about twice the pace that a High School course does. You are expected to absorb new material much more quickly. Tests are probably spaced farther apart and so cover more material than before. The Instructor may not even check your homework.

  • Take responsibility for keeping up with the homework. Make sure you find out how to do it.
  • You probably need to spend more time studying per week – you do more of the learning outside of class than in High School.
  • Tests may seem harder just because they cover more material.


Study Time

You may know a rule of thumb about math (and other) classes: at least 2 hours of study time per class hour. But this may not be enough!

  • Take as much time as you need to do all the homework and to get complete understanding of the material.
  • Form a study group. Meet once or twice a week (also use the phone). Go over problems you’ve had trouble with. Either someone else in the group will help you, or you will discover you’re all stuck on the same problems. Then it’s time to get help from your Instructor.
  • The more challenging the material, the more time you should spend on it.

Problem Solving

Problem Solving (Homework and Tests)

  • The higher the math class, the more types of problems: in earlier classes, problems often required just one step to find a solution. Increasingly, you will tackle problems which require several steps to solve them. Break these problems down into smaller pieces and solve each piece – divide and conquer!
  • Problem types:
  1. Problems testing memorization (“drill”),
  2. Problems testing skills (“drill”),
  3. Problems requiring application of skills to familiar situations (“template” problems),
  4. Problems requiring application of skills to unfamiliar situations (you develop a strategy for a new problem type),
  5. Problems requiring that you extend the skills or theory you know before applying them to an unfamiliar situation.

In early courses, you solved problems of types 1, 2 and 3. By College Algebra you expect to do mostly problems of types 2 and 3 and sometimes of type 4. Later courses expect you to tackle more and more problems of types 3 and 4, and (eventually) of type 5. Each problem of types 4 or 5 usually requires you to use a multi-step approach, and may involve several different math skills and techniques.

  • When you work problems on homework, write out complete solutions, as if you were taking a test. Don’t just scratch out a few lines and check the answer in the back of the book. If your answer is not right, rework the problem; don’t just do some mental gymnastics to convince yourself that you could get the correct answer. If you can’t get the answer, get help.
  • The practice you get doing homework and reviewing will make test problems easier to tackle.


Tips on Problem Solving

  • Apply Pólya’s four-step process:
  1. The first and most important step in solving a problem is to understand the problem, that is, identify exactly which quantity the problem is asking you to find or solve for (make sure you read the whole problem).
  2. Next you need to devise a plan, that is, identify which skills and techniques you have learned can be applied to solve the problem at hand.
  3. Carry out the plan.
  4. Look back: Does the answer you found seem reasonable? Also review the problem and method of solution so that you will be able to more easily recognize and solve a similar problem.
  • Some problem-solving strategies: use one or more variables, complete a table, consider a special case, look for a pattern, guess and test, draw a picture or diagram, make a list, solve a simpler related problem, use reasoning, work backward, solve an equation, look for a formula, use coordinates.


“Word” Problems are Really “Applied” Problems

The term “word problem” has only negative connotations. It’s better to think of them as “applied problems”. These problems should be the most interesting ones to solve. Sometimes the “applied” problems don’t appear very realistic, but that’s usually because the corresponding real applied problems are too hard or complicated to solve at your current level. But at least you get an idea of how the math you are learning can help solve actual real-world problems.


Solving an Applied Problem

  • First convert the problem into mathematics. This step is (usually) the most challenging part of an applied problem. If possible, start by drawing a picture. Label it with all the quantities mentioned in the problem. If a quantity in the problem is not a fixed number, name it by a variable. Identify the goal of the problem. Then complete the conversion of the problem into math, i.e., find equations which describe relationships among the variables, and describe the goal of the problem mathematically.
  • Solve the math problem you have generated, using whatever skills and techniques you need (refer to the four-step process above).
  • As a final step, you should convert the answer of your math problem back into words, so that you have now solved the original applied problem.

For Further Reading:
George Pólya, How to Solve It,Princeton University Press, Princeton (1945)

Studying for a Math Test

Everyday Study is a Big Part of Test Preparation

Good study habits throughout the semester make it easier to study for tests.

  • Do the homework when it is assigned. You cannot hope to cram 3 or 4 weeks worth of learning into a couple of days of study.
  • On tests you have to solve problems; homework problems are the only way to get practice. As you do homework, make lists of formulas and techniques to use later when you study for tests.
  • Ask your Instructor questions as they arise; don’t wait until the day or two before a test. The questions you ask right before a test should be to clear up minor details.


Studying for a Test

  • Start by going over each section, reviewing your notes and checking that you can still do the homework problems (actually work the problems again). Use the worked examples in the text and notes – cover up the solutions and work the problems yourself. Check your work against the solutions given.


  • You’re not ready yet! In the book each problem appears at the end of the section in which you learned how do to that problem; on a test the problems from different sections are all together.
    • Step back and ask yourself what kind of problems you have learned how to solve, what techniques of solution you have learned, and how to tell which techniques go with which problems.
    • Try to explain out loud, in your own words, how each solution strategy is used (e.g. how to solve a quadratic equation). If you get confused during a test, you can mentally return to your verbal “capsule instructions”. Check your verbal explanations with a friend during a study session (it’s more fun than talking to yourself!).
    • Put yourself in a test-like situation: work problems from review sections at the end of chapters, and work old tests if you can find some. It’s important to keep working problems the whole time you’re studying.
    • Also:
      • Start studying early. Several days to a week before the test (longer for the final), begin to allot time in your schedule to reviewing for the test.
      • Get lots of sleep the night before the test. Math tests are easier when you are mentally sharp.

Taking a Math Test

Test-Taking Strategy Matters

Just as it is important to think about how you spend your study time (in addition to actually doing the studying), it is important to think about what strategies you will use when you take a test (in addition to actually doing the problems on the test). Good test-taking strategy can make a big difference to your grade!


Taking a Test

  • First look over the entire test. You’ll get a sense of its length. Try to identify those problems you definitely know how to do right away, and those you expect to have to think about.
  • Do the problems in the order that suits you! Start with the problems that you know for sure you can do. This builds confidence and means you don’t miss any sure points just because you run out of time. Then try the problems you think you can figure out; then finally try the ones you are least sure about.
  • Time is of the essence – work as quickly and continuously as you can while still writing legibly and showing all your work. If you get stuck on a problem, move on to another one – you can come back later.
  • Work by the clock. On a 50 minute, 100 point test, you have about 5 minutes for a 10 point question. Starting with the easy questions will probably put you ahead of the clock. When you work on a harder problem, spend the allotted time (e.g., 5 minutes) on that question, and if you have not almost finished it, go on to another problem. Do not spend 20 minutes on a problem which will yield few or no points when there are other problems still to try.
  • Show all your work: make it as easy as possible for the Instructor to see how much you do know. Try to write a well-reasoned solution. If your answer is incorrect, the Instructor will assign partial credit based on the work you show.
  • Never waste time erasing! Just draw a line through the work you want ignored and move on. Not only does erasing waste precious time, but you may discover later that you erased something useful (and/or maybe worth partial credit if you cannot complete the problem). You are (usually) not required to fit your answer in the space provided – you can put your answer on another sheet to avoid needing to erase.
  • In a multiple-step problem outline the steps before actually working the problem.
  • Don’t give up on a several-part problem just because you can’t do the first part. Attempt the other part(s) – if the actual solution depends on the first part, at least explain how you would do it.
  • Make sure you read the questions carefully, and do all parts of each problem.
  • Verify your answers – does each answer make sense given the context of the problem?
  • If you finish early, check every problem (that means rework everything from scratch).

Getting Assistance


Get help as soon as you need it. Don’t wait until a test is near. The new material builds on the previous sections, so anything you don’t understand now will make future material difficult to understand.


Use the Resources You Have Available

  • Ask questions in class. You get help and stay actively involved in the class.
  • Visit the Instructor’s Office Hours. Instructors like to see students who want to help themselves.
  • Ask friends, members of your study group, or anyone else who can help. The classmate who explains something to you learns just as much as you do, for he/she must think carefully about how to explain the particular concept or solution in a clear way. So don’t be reluctant to ask a classmate.
  • Go to the Math Help Sessions or other tutoring sessions on campus.
  • Find a private tutor if you can’t get enough help from other sources.
  • All students need help at some point, so be sure to get the help you need.


Asking Questions

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Any question is better than no question at all (at least your Instructor/tutor will know you are confused). But a good question will allow your helper to quickly identify exactly what you don’t understand.

  • Not too helpful comment: “I don’t understand this section.” The best you can expect in reply to such a remark is a brief review of the section, and this will likely overlook the particular thing(s) which you don’t understand.
  • Good comment: “I don’t understand why f(x + h) doesn’t equal f(x) + f(h).” This is a very specific remark that will get a very specific response and hopefully clear up your difficulty.
  • Good question: “How can you tell the difference between the equation of a circle and the equation of a line?”
  • Okay question: “How do you do #17?”
  • Better question: “Can you show me how to set up #17?” (the Instructor can let you try to finish the problem on your own), or “This is how I tried to do #17. What went wrong?” The focus of attention is on your thought process.
  • Right after you get help with a problem, work another similar problem by yourself.


You Control the Help You Get

Helpers should be coaches, not crutches. They should encourage you, give you hints as you need them, and sometimes show you how to do problems. But they should not, nor be expected to, actually do the work youneed to do. They are there to help you figure out how to learn math for yourself.

  • When you go to office hours, your study group or a tutor, have a specific list of questions prepared in advance. You should run the session as much as possible.
  • Do not allow yourself to become dependent on a tutor. The tutor cannot take the exams for you. You must take care to be the one in control of tutoring sessions.
  • You must recognize that sometimes you do need some coaching to help you through, and it is up to you to seek out that coaching.

Department of Mathematics and Computer Science
June 1993

Editing Your Life’s Stories Can Create Happier Endings

2 01 2014


January 01, 2014 2:00 PM

Daniel Horowitz for NPR

It was a rainy night in October when my nephew Lewis passed the Frankenstein statue standing in front of a toy store. The 2 1/2-year-old boy didn’t see the monster at first, and when he turned around, he was only inches from Frankenstein’s green face, bloodshot eyes and stitched-up skin.

The 4-foot-tall monster terrified my nephew so much that he ran deep into the toy store. And on the way back out, he simply couldn’t face the statue. He jumped into his mother’s arms and had to bury his head in her shoulder.

For hours after the incident, Lewis was stuck. He kept replaying the image of Frankenstein’s face in his mind. “Mom, remember Frankenstein?” he asked over and over again. He and his mom talked about how scary the statue was, how Lewis had to jump into her arms. It was “like a record loop,” my sister said.

But then, suddenly, Lewis’ story completely changed. My sister was recounting the tale to the family: how they left the store, how they had to walk by Frankenstein. And then — “I peed on him!!” Lewis blurted out triumphantly, with a glint in his eyes.

In that instant, Lewis had overpowered Frankenstein — if only in his mind.

“Well, your nephew is a brilliant story editor,'” says psychologist Tim Wilson of the University of Virginia.

Wilson has been studying how small changes in a person’s own stories and memories can help with emotional health. He calls the process “story editing.” And he says small tweaks in the interpretation of life events can reap huge benefits.

This process is essentially what happens during months, or years, of therapy. But Wilson has discovered ways you can change your story in only about 45 minutes.

Wilson first stumbled on the technique back in the early 1980s, when he found that a revised story helped college students who were struggling academically. “I’m bad at school” was the old story many of them were telling themselves. That story leads to a self-defeating cycle that keeps them struggling, Wilson says.

The new story Wilson gave them was: “Everyone fails at first.” He introduced the students to this idea by having them read accounts from other students who had struggled with grades at first and then improved. It was a 40-minute intervention that had effects three years later.

“The ones who got our little story-editing nudge improved their grades, whereas the others didn’t,” Wilson says. “And to our surprise … those who got our story-editing intervention were more likely to stay in college. The people in the control group were more likely to drop out.”

Similar interventions have also helped students feel like they fit in socially at college and have helped parents to stop abusing their kids.

The idea is that if you believe you are something else — perhaps smarter, more socially at ease — you can allow for profound changes to occur.

You can even try story-editing yourself at home with these writing exercises. Simply pick a troubling event. And write about it for 15 minutes each day for four days. That’s it.

These exercises have been shown to help relieve mental anguish, improve health and increase attendance at work.

No one is sure why the approach works. But Wilson’s theory is that trying to understand why a painful event happened is mentally consuming. People get stuck in thinking, “Why did he leave me?” or “Why was she so disappointed in me?” Or for Lewis, “Where did that scary Frankenstein face come from?”

As you write about the troubling, confusing event again and again, eventually you begin to make sense of it. You can put those consuming thoughts to rest.

So as you look forward to changing yourself this year, consider looking back on whatever your Frankensteins may be. And if you squint your eyes a little and turn your head just a bit, you may see that your leg was lifted. That maybe you did pee on him after all.

10 Unbelievable Facts About Human Brain That Everyone Should Know.

30 12 2013
  1. Nerve impulses to and from the brain travel as fast as 170 miles per hour. Ever wonder how you can react so fast to things around you or why that stubbed toe hurts right away? It’s due to the super-speedy movement of nerve impulses from your brain to the rest of your body and vice versa, bringing reactions at the speed of a high powered luxury sports car.
  2. The brain operates on the same amount of power as 10-watt light bulb. The cartoon image of a light bulb over your head when a great thought occurs isn’t too far off the mark. Your brain generates as much energy as a small light bulb even when you’re sleeping.
  3. The human brain cell can hold 5 times as much information as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Or any other encyclopedia for that matter. Scientists have yet to settle on a definitive amount, but the storage capacity of the brain in electronic terms is thought to be between 3 or even 1,000 terabytes. The National Archives of Britain, containing over 900 years of history, only takes up 70 terabytes, making your brain’s memory power pretty darn impressive.
  4. Your brain uses 20% of the oxygen that enters your bloodstream.The brain only makes up about 2% of our body mass, yet consumes more oxygen than any other organ in the body, making it extremely susceptible to damage related to oxygen deprivation. So breathe deep to keep your brain happy and swimming in oxygenated cells.
  5. The brain is much more active at night than during the day.Logically, you would think that all the moving around, complicated calculations and tasks and general interaction we do on a daily basis during our working hours would take a lot more brain power than, say, lying in bed. Turns out, the opposite is true. When you turn off your brain turns on. Scientists don’t yet know why this is but you can thank the hard work of your brain while you sleep for all those pleasant dreams.
  6. Scientists say the higher your I.Q. the more you dream. While this may be true, don’t take it as a sign you’re mentally lacking if you can’t recall your dreams. Most of us don’t remember many of our dreams and the average length of most dreams is only 2-3 seconds–barely long enough to register.
  7. Neurons continue to grow throughout human life. For years scientists and doctors thought that brain and neural tissue couldn’t grow or regenerate. While it doesn’t act in the same manner as tissues in many other parts of the body, neurons can and do grow throughout your life, adding a whole new dimension to the study of the brain and the illnesses that affect it.
  8. Information travels at different speeds within different types of neurons. Not all neurons are the same. There are a few different types within the body and transmission along these different kinds can be as slow as 0.5 meters/sec or as fast as 120 meters/sec.
  9. The brain itself cannot feel pain. While the brain might be the pain center when you cut your finger or burn yourself, the brain itself does not have pain receptors and cannot feel pain. That doesn’t mean your head can’t hurt. The brain is surrounded by loads of tissues, nerves and blood vessels that are plenty receptive to pain and can give you a pounding headache.
  10. 80% of the brain is water. Your brain isn’t the firm, gray mass you’ve seen on TV. Living brain tissue is a squishy, pink and jelly-like organ thanks to the loads of blood and high water content of the tissue. So the next time you’re feeling dehydrated get a drink to keep your brain hydrated.

In Teaching Algebra, the Not-So-Secret Way to Students’ Hearts

26 12 2013


Ed Yourdon/Flickr

Education researchers are beginning to validate what many teachers have long known — connecting learning to student interests helps the information stick. This seems to work particularly well with math, a subject many students say they dislike because they can’t see its relevance to their lives.

“When I started spending time in classrooms I realized the math wasn’t being applied to the students’ world in a meaningful way,” said Candace Walkington, assistant professor in the department of teaching and learning at Southern Methodist University. She conducted a year-long study on 141 ninth graders at a Pennsylvania high school to see whether tailoring questions to individual student interests could help students learn difficult and often abstract algebra concepts.

“We picked out the students who seemed to be struggling the most in Algebra I and we found that for this sub-group of students personalization was more effective.”

Researchers studied a classroom usingCarnegie Learning software called Cognitive Tutor, a program that has been studied frequently. In the study, half of the students chose one of several categories that interested them — things like music, movies, sports, social media — and were given an algebra curriculum based on those topics. The other half received no interest-based personalization. All the problems had the same underlying structure and were meant to teach the same concept.

Walkington found that students who had received interest-based personalization mastered concepts faster. What’s more, in order to ensure that learning was robust, retained over time, and would accelerate future learning, she also looked at student performance in a later unit that had no interest-based personalization for any of the students. “Students that had previously received personalization, even though it was gone, were doing better on these more difficult problems as well,” said Walkington.

[RELATED: Nine Tenents of Passion Based Learning]

She also found that struggling students improved the most when their interests were taken into account. “We picked out the students who seemed to be struggling the most in Algebra I and we found that for this sub-group of students that were way behind the personalization was more effective,” Walkington said. Specifically, the study tested students’ ability to turn story problems into algebraic equations — what’s called algebraic expression writing.

“That’s one of the most challenging skills to teach students because it’s a very abstract skill,” Walkington said. She hypothesizes that the abstract nature of the concepts actually allowed students to more easily generalize and apply the same knowledge to a wide variety of situations and to more difficult problems in later units.

Walkington is working to expand her study to all the ninth graders in a school district of 9,000 students. “The bigger, you make it the harder it is to tap into the interests of students,” Walkington said. But she’s confident that there are some general-interest categories that many students share, like sports and movies.


But can this tactic help a teacher with a class of 30 students that doesn’t use this particular math software? Teachers in the studied school asked this question, so Walkington developed a practical guide for them to use. She chose to conduct the study using the Carnegie blended learning curriculum because it was easy to layer on the interest-based personalization to the existing program. It also provided her with a wealth of data about how students approached the problems. That said, a teacher could use interest-driven questions without any math software.

From her guide:

Two Examples of Personalization
Personalization can be accomplished on simple mathematics story problems. For example, a typical algebra problem might read: “A particular assembly line in an automobile company plant can produce thirteen cars every hour.” Based on this scenario, students might be asked to write an expression or solve for how many cars are produced after certain numbers of hours. Below are some examples of how this problem could be personalized:
ShoppingThe website of your favorite clothing store, Hot Topic, sells thirteen superhero t-shirts every hour.
Computers: A recent video blog you posted about your life on YouTube gets thirteen hits every hour.
Food: Your favorite restaurant “Steak ‘n Shake” sells thirteen caramel pretzel shakes every hour.
Music: Pandora Internet radio plays thirteen of your favorite pop songs every hour.
Cell Phones:  On your new iPhone 5 you send your best friend thirteen texts every hour.
While these problems involve relatively simple modifications, our research has shown that this type of personalization is effective for improving student learning.


[RELATED: How the Power of Interest Drives Learning]

Helping students see algebra in their daily lives is one way to apply this technique. In the same way, video games have point systems that allow players to level up after they’ve won a certain number of points. Students understand these systems intimately, but aren’t often asked to think about them through the lens of algebra. Similarly, students have a sense of how often they text and how their texting habits compare to others, but they aren’t often asked to express that relationship in an equation. Helping students to see the math in their own lives could get them thinking differently.

Another way teachers can personalize algebra would be to ask questions that are likely to appeal to student interests. Walkington found that students find story problems that deal with social issues of communicating with family and friends accessible. Concepts of work and business were less accessible, as were problems that dealt with physics concepts like motion, time, and space. Problems based on home references like pets were more interesting to students and garnered better results. Using these broad guidelines, teachers can try to write questions that appeal to more students.

Walkington has also experimented with having students personalize their own math instruction, writing, sharing and solving story problems in small groups. She’s found that even students with relatively little math knowledge can create complex story problems and express them with algebra if there’s interest in the topic. This is a great way to have students construct their own knowledge while applying it to their passions.

A great time to use this tactic is when introducing an abstract idea or foundational topic in algebra. That’s when educators will see the most benefit of grounding the topic in student interests, Walkington said. It’s important to elicit student interest in the math concepts, however, and not just the question’s topic. This intervention could work well with struggling students too.

“We have to layer the algebra onto those relationships that already exist,” Walkington said. “And that’s not an obvious thing because it doesn’t look anything like algebra at first. It just looks like a relationship.” She’s confident from her own experience of learning to love math that when students see its applicability to things they care about, they learn more easily and deeply.

Reflections on Turning Sixty by Bob Bishop

17 11 2013

The phrase “turning 60” brings to mind the face of a clock. One reason is that my youngest daughter gave me a notebook with clock faces on it with a quote from the ancient book of Ecclesiastes for my birthday. This quote exploded in my mind with a haunting song written by Pete Seeger in the late 1950’s. The lyrics were adapted almost entirely from verses from the Book of Ecclesiastes, set to music and recorded in 1962 by the Byrds. “To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)…There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)..And a time to every purpose, under Heaven.” It is difficult not to sing it as I write this. 

So my mind ventured further. As a math teacher I felt compelled to investigate the significance of 60 in the matter of time. The age old question pierced my thoughts. Why are there 60 seconds per minute, 60 minutes per hour and 24 hours in a day? I discovered that there was a rather enigmatic tale of a collaboration of the Egyptian use of sundials to divide a twelve hour day and a twelve hour night, the Babylonian using base 60 in their astronomical calculations and the Greek mathematicians who divided circles into 360 degrees. It has a wonderfully mathematical history interesting to some and accepted by everyone. So we have the invention of the face of a clock circle explained as well as the significance of 60 in the matter of time.
So I have lived 60 years, 219,145 days, 525,960 hours, 31,557,600 minutes or 1,893,456,000 seconds.

That brings us to a story of a couple who had an old grandfather clock in their family for generations. It used to keep perfect time, but lately they had noticed that, instead of going “tick tock tick tock “, it was just went ” tick, tick, tick, tick “,and consequently it had started to lose time. Eventually they decided to take the clock back to the manufacturers in Germany. The clock maker studied the grandfather clock suspiciously, walked up to the face and declared, ” Ve haf vays of making you tock.”

Clocks have a face but no mouth to talk with. They have hands but do not communicate. We impose personality to Father Time but still time tics away giving no meaning to our lives. Clocks do not give meaning- they only give time. As I return to the circular face of a clock I again see the turning of time. Turn, turn, turn. The hands circle round and round but do not produce significance.

I have an old clock that I wind every week just as my father did years ago. I remember the sounds of the gongs on the hour, the pings on the half hour and the memories of my father. As I look through the scrapbooks of my life that clock appears over and over. Through my childhood, through my middle school years and high school years it was in the background of the photographs. The clock was on the fireplace mantle where Christmas cards were hung. It was also on display at my father’s memorial service. I have significant memories and I give meaning to that clock.
Clocks are tools and like other instruments they have a specific purpose, meaning and significance we give them. But they do not give us purpose, meaning or significance.

Here is a metaphorical example for the use of tools. When you observe a clock you will see that most are round, they have 12 numbers,  they help when you want to be on time, and helps with schedules and appointments. Now take a compass. Notice that it is also round, it has 360 numbers, it helps when you are lost and gives us direction.

A person run by a clock could be seen as one who runs life by patterns, often distracted by the urgent, goes in circles, just turns the crank but winds up nowhere. Consider the idioms about time. We use so many phrases with it. We pass time, waste time, kill time and lose time. We do things in good time and we take our time. We save time and we are right on time. We are out of time. We mind the time. We keep time and we stall for time.

A person led by a compass has a direction in life, runs life by principles, stays focused on the important, and has direction and even sets direction. What comes to mind here is how a compass gave Einstein a sense of wonder. Here is how the story goes. When Einstein was five years old he came down with an illness that forced him to take bed rest. His father gave him a compass – a gift that would change his life. He pondered what made the arrow always point to north no matter where he stood. He shook it up, spun it around and it would still point north. When most people go through their lives with the least thought of the mysteries of the universe, this compass caused him to question. It kindled in him a life-long need to know how nature worked. There is a force in nature, a magic. Nature itself tells us there is much more than what senses cannot explain. This was the first time he experienced wonder. This sense of wonder gave Einstein a sense of direction for the rest of his life. A sense of awe and wonder drives one to ponder as Shakespeare wrote when Hamlet said to Horatio “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Returning to a timepiece we find that there are two words for time in the Greek. They are chronos and kairos. Both are Greek words which mean time, but they imply different things. Chronos refers to minutes and seconds like a clock. It refers to time as a measurable resource. It reminds us that we have only so much time in this world. Mitch Albom says in The Time Keeper , “Try to imagine a life without timekeeping. You probably can’t. You know the month, the year, the day of the week. There is a clock on your wall or the dashboard of your car. You have a schedule, a calendar, a time for dinner or a movie. Yet all around you, timekeeping is ignored. Birds are not late. A dog does not check its watch. Deer do not fret over passing birthdays. Man alone measures time. Man alone chimes the hour. And, because of this, man alone suffers a paralyzing fear that no other creature endures. A fear of time running out.”

Kairos is also a word used for time. Kairos means an appointed time, an opportune moment, or a due season. We tend to think of our time in a chronos mindset. We think of having 24 hours in a day. We define our workweeks by the number of hours that we work. We have a list of things to do and only so much time to get everything done. Being conscious of our minutes and seconds is a good thing. Our time on earth is so brief, and we want to be good stewards of every second that we have. We only have such a brief opportunity to raise our kids when they’re still young children. When a friend is experiencing pain, we have a brief window of time in which to reach out to them. Instead of looking at our time as grains of sand slipping through an hourglass, we view our time as opportunities flying by. Instead of viewing our time as seconds ticking by, we realize that not every second holds the same worth. This presupposes meaning and purpose.

Brian Selznick, in his wonderful children’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Isabelle and Hugo discusses this high in a clock tower.

Isabelle: I wonder what my purpose is…

Hugo Cabret: Everything has a purpose, clocks tell you the time, trains take you to places. I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured if the entire world was one big machine… I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.

For Hugo the giant clock reminded him of his purpose but it did not give him purpose. And such it is when we look for purpose and meaning “under the sun.” (a phrase introduced again in the ancient book of Ecclesiastes). Like a sundial and the silent face of a clock, as well as a calendar or how many birthdays I live–they give no meaning, they measure time and provoke us to see a higher purpose.

Others have set their sights higher for meaning by looking beyond the endless measurement of time to the vastness of the universe. The tools and instruments are not clocks but telescopes.

We hear from scientists that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old. Light reaching us from the earliest known galaxies has been travelling, therefore, for more than 13 billion years. So one might assume that the radius of the universe is 13.7 billion light-years and that the whole universe size is double that, or 27.4 billion light-years wide. The standard picture is that our universe descends from a Bang 13.7 billion years ago. According to scientists, we do not even know whether it is finite or infinite.

The satirist Sci-fi writer Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy says “The universe is a very big thing that contains a great number of planets and a great number of beings. It is Everything. What we live in. All around us. The lot. Not nothing. It is quite difficult to actually define what the Universe means, but fortunately this Guide doesn’t worry about that and just gives us some useful information to live in it.”

We gather this smallness and meaningless from the recent film Gravity. We see Ryan Stone hanging in the vast void of space and devoid of God seeking enough reason to survive and bravely overcome insurmountable obstacles in order to return to earth. Here I am reminded of a quote by Ravi Zacharias, “Meaninglessness is the plague of our time.”

But in the vastness of space we can be wowed but miss the music of the spheres, the poetry and mystery of wonder. Does science necessarily lead us down a road that ends in the naturalistic explanation of everything we see? In the nineteenth century, modernism lead us that direction. The “God of the gaps” was finding himself in a narrower and narrower niche. However, 20th century and now 21st century science is leading us back down the road of design – not from a lack of scientific explanation, but from scientific explanation that requires an appeal to something that the tools of science do not deal well with. As a result of the recent evidence in support of design, many scientists now believe in God. Here are a few of these voices:

Paul Davies: “The laws [of physics] … seem to be the product of exceedingly ingenious design… The universe must have a purpose”.

Alan Sandage (winner of the Crawford prize in astronomy): “I find it quite improbable that such order came out of chaos. There has to be some organizing principle. God to me is a mystery but is the explanation for the miracle of existence, why there is something instead of nothing.”

Roger Penrose (mathematician and author): “I would say the universe has a purpose. It’s not there just somehow by chance.”

Robert Jastrow (self-proclaimed agnostic): “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Frank Tipler (Professor of Mathematical Physics): “When I began my career as a cosmologist some twenty years ago, I was a convinced atheist. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that one day I would be writing a book purporting to show that the central claims of Judeo-Christian theology are in fact true, that these claims are straightforward deductions of the laws of physics as we now understand them. I have been forced into these conclusions by the inexorable logic of my own special branch of physics.” Note: Tipler since has actually converted to Christianity, hence his latest book, The Physics Of Christianity.

Arthur L. Schawlow (Professor of Physics at Stanford University, 1981 Nobel Prize in physics): “It seems to me that when confronted with the marvels of life and the universe, one must ask why and not just how. ……I find a need for God in the universe and in my own life.”

It is strange how the infinity of time and vastness of space impresses people but smallness displays infinity in another direction.

When we replace the telescope of astronomy with the microscope of nuclear physics we ask how small is the universe? It can be said that there are possibly more atoms within that single grain of sand than there are grains of sand on this entire beach.

When we replace the microscope back to instruments of time measurement we approach the question how short of time can we measure. We have moved from seconds to, milliseconds (one thousandth of second), to single digit microseconds (one millionth of a second) and now into the nanosecond range”

Here we are reminded of William Blake’s haunting poem….

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

We are awed that we can explore infinity of the macrocosm as well as the microcosm with instruments of science. But tools are made to measure and observe things. They are not to give meaning. We need not bow to the papacy of science. The tools of science compel us to keep asking questions but it will never give us the answers to the deeper questions of life.
As we seek answers to life, as we search for that compass to give direction and wonder, as we desire a kairos purpose in our lives, as our hearts echo the childhood wisdom of Hugo Cabret, as we see that science does not necessarily lead us down the road of atheism, we can ask the deeper questions of life and seek answers for the head, heart and hands. We can seek answers that are intellectually satisfying, answers that fill the desires of our heart, and answers that give us something significant to do.

Just as there are scientific facts to the universe there are also facts and deeper questions that science does not have the instruments to discover.

Fact number one: There is something rather than nothing. We live as though we are real people in a real world. Why is there something rather than nothing?

Fact number two: We can know this universe (or at least part of it). We live as though we can trust our senses and reasoning. Why do we have the ability to know and understand?

Fact number three: People have dignity as well as cruelty. We live as though we have a superior standing in the world and are moral creatures, but we have difficulty living up to this standard. Why do we have a sense of morality, love, and justice?

Fact number four: We hunger for something more. We feel a need for purpose, we have longings to satisfy, we desire challenge, victory, and contribution. Why do we seek beyond what is? Why do we feel like the Hallow Men of T.S. Eliot yet feel unfulfilled at the end of it all…”This is the way the world ends….Not with a bang but a whimper.”? Why are we not satisfied with Macbeth’s utterance, “Life….. is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

I remember after my brother died of cancer he left us his car. Not able to sell this car it had just enough energy to drive to the junk yard. Arriving there I traded the car for some cash and asked the attendant what I should do with the car keys. He took the keys and threw them into the junkyard with all the rest of the wreckage. And so it will be with all the so-called scientific keys of life that with a hubris bravado claim they have finally arrived at the answer of life. We have a history full of claims. Again Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun.

We seek satisfying and sufficient answers. We desire something greater to live for. We seek not just a life enjoyed but a life with a purpose larger than we are. Deep inside we seek a life non sibi (not for self). Deep inside we desire our finale to have a life well-lived, a life well- played and a life well-told. We will not find these answers or even the correct questions “under the sun” but somewhere else. So at sixty years of age I looked at a clock, face to face, and it served only as a goad for me to seek further.

I close with these words by Frederick Buechner from his book Wishful Thinking,

On her deathbed, Gertrude Stein is said to have asked, “What is the answer?” Then, after a long silence, “What is the question?” Don’t start looking in the Bible for the answers it gives. Start by listening for the questions it asks. We are much involved, all of us, with questions about things that matter a good deal today but will be forgotten by this time tomorrow—the immediate wheres and whens and hows that face us daily at home and at work—but at the same time we tend to lose track of the questions about things that matter always, life-and-death questions about meaning, purpose, and value. To lose track of such deep questions as these is to risk losing track of who we really are in our own depths and where we are really going. There is perhaps no stronger reason for reading the Bible than that somewhere among all those India-paper pages there awaits each reader, whoever he is, the one question which, though for years he may have been pretending not to hear it, is the central question of his own life.

5 Reasons to Embrace Gaming in the Classroom

16 11 2013

Published October 25, 2013
  • Gaming is an amazing strategy to use in the classroom, yet few teachers use it to increase their students’ learning. Generally it is used a ‘reward’ or dismissed as purely fun, with no learning purpose. Gaming, however, is a wonderful way to re-engage students with learning and make learning relevant to their lives. This is not to say that it should be the only teaching strategy that you should use, or that all topics would be best taught through gaming. Many learning situations, however, can be dramatically improved through introducing gaming to your classroom.

Gaming in the Classroom

1. Improve Engagement

When students know that gaming is going to be introduced into a unit, they automatically become a lot more interested in what is happening. Even students who are not ‘gamers’ are interested in the change in the status quo. Something new is happening in their classroom, and they want to be a part of it. For those students who are gamers, the lesson suddenly becomes something that is relevant to them and their lives. It also provides opportunities for students who may not achieve success easily at school to become successful, and even become mentors to other students who are not comfortable in a gaming environment.

 2. Personalise Instruction

All good teachers ultimate goal is to differentiate instruction, giving all students the support they need at their individual level. This, however, is time consuming to achieve. Good games are open-ended, giving all students opportunities to work at their own level. They also allow students to see how to achieve success at the next level, providing them with clear goals. Many games can also be personalised, so that students can connect with the game. Avatars and other similar personalisations allow the students to portray who they are while staying within the safe constraints of the game. This connection is not often possible in schools with strict rules about personal appearance or in children who have little control over their environment.

 3. Provide an entry point to content

Games provide a way for all students to access content that may seem inaccessible when presented in an alternative way. Many games, particularly role playing games, allow students who are not confident to watch others who are more confident attempt the task first. Gaming also allows them to try new tasks without having to worry about getting it ‘wrong’. If they do make a mistake, it is not visible, but they can take that learning and try again. They could also attempt a slightly easier task as a way in to the original task without being seen to ‘fall behind’ by their peers.

 4. Clear rules and objectives

Games have clear rules and objectives and when teaching with games this makes the learning significantly clearer for students. Having clear learning objectives takes the mystery away from learning for students, allowing them to achieve success. They also know exactly what will happen if they do or do not follow the rules of the game. This clarity assists students to take control of their own learning and understand exactly how they can improve.

 5. Increase Learning

Ultimately, all of the above points means that students will improve their learning. When students are engaged, know how to achieve success and have an entry point to all of the content, they will learn the content. Add to this the opportunity to practice and trial new thinking, students can master the content quickly and confidently. Provided that you have a specific purpose for introducing gaming and know what learning you want your students to achieve, then gaming is the perfect opportunity to given students ownership over their own learning.

 What games have you introduced successfully in the classroom? Leave a comment below and let us know how your class is embracing gaming.

 Feature image courtesy of Flickr, kennymatic.


Rebecca Davies is a teacher in the western suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. She teaches primary and middle years students (Prep to year 9) and has taught in PYP and mainstream schools. She is passionate about educational technology and how it can engage students, making their learning personalised and relevant to their lives.

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The Myth of ‘I’m Bad at Math’

13 11 2013

The Myth of ‘I’m Bad at Math’

Basic ability in the subject isn’t the product of good genes, but hard work.
OCT 28 2013, 10:30 AM ET

“I’m just not a math person.”

We hear it all the time. And we’ve had enough. Because we believe that the idea of “math people” is the most self-destructive idea in America today. The truth is, you probably are a math person, and by thinking otherwise, you are possibly hamstringing your own career. Worse, you may be helping to perpetuate a pernicious myth that is harming underprivileged children—the myth of inborn genetic math ability.

Is math ability genetic? Sure, to some degree. Terence Tao, UCLA’s famous virtuoso mathematician, publishes dozens of papers in top journals every year, and is sought out by researchers around the world to help with the hardest parts of their theories. Essentially none of us could ever be as good at math as Terence Tao, no matter how hard we tried or how well we were taught. But here’s the thing: We don’t have to! For high-school math, inborn talent is much less important than hard work, preparation, and self-confidence.

How do we know this? First of all, both of us have taught math for many years—as professors, teaching assistants, and private tutors. Again and again, we have seen the following pattern repeat itself:

  1. Different kids with different levels of preparation come into a math class. Some of these kids have parents who have drilled them on math from a young age, while others never had that kind of parental input.
  2. On the first few tests, the well-prepared kids get perfect scores, while the unprepared kids get only what they could figure out by winging it—maybe 80 or 85%, a solid B.
  3. The unprepared kids, not realizing that the top scorers were well-prepared, assume that genetic ability was what determined the performance differences. Deciding that they “just aren’t math people,” they don’t try hard in future classes, and fall further behind.
  4. The well-prepared kids, not realizing that the B students were simply unprepared, assume that they are “math people,” and work hard in the future, cementing their advantage.

Thus, people’s belief that math ability can’t change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The idea that math ability is mostly genetic is one dark facet of a larger fallacy that intelligence is mostly genetic. Academic psychology journals are well stocked with papers studying the world view that lies behind the kind of self-fulfilling prophecy we just described. For example, Purdue University psychologist Patricia Linehan writes:

A body of research on conceptions of ability has shown two orientations toward ability. Students with an Incremental orientation believe ability (intelligence) to be malleable, a quality that increases with effort. Students with an Entity orientation believe ability to be nonmalleable, a fixed quality of self that does not increase with effort.

The “entity orientation” that says “You are smart or not, end of story,” leads to bad outcomes—a result that has been confirmed by many other studies. (The relevance for math is shown by researchers at Oklahoma City who recently found that belief in inborn math ability may be responsible for much of the gender gap in mathematics.)

Psychologists Lisa Blackwell, Kali Trzesniewski, and Carol Dweck presented these alternatives to determine people’s beliefs about intelligence:
  1. You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you really can’t do much to change it.
  2. You can always greatly change how intelligent you are.

They found that students who agreed that “You can always greatly change how intelligent you are” got higher grades. But as Richard Nisbett recounts in his bookIntelligence and How to Get It, they did something even more remarkable:

Dweck and her colleagues then tried to convince a group of poor minority junior high school students that intelligence is highly malleable and can be developed by hard work…that learning changes the brain by forming new…connections and that students are in charge of this change process.

The results? Convincing students that they could make themselves smarter by hard work led them to work harder and get higher grades. The intervention had the biggest effect for students who started out believing intelligence was genetic. (A control group, who were taught how memory works, showed no such gains.)

For almost everyone, believing that you were born dumb—and are doomed to stay that way—is believing a lie. IQ itself can improve with hard work. Because the truth may be hard to believe, here is a set of links about some excellent books to convince you that most people can become smart in many ways, if they work hard enough:

So why do we focus on math? For one thing, math skills are increasingly important for getting good jobs these days—so believing you can’t learn math is especially self-destructive. But we also believe that math is the area where America’s “fallacy of inborn ability” is the most entrenched. Math is the great mental bogeyman of an unconfident America. If we can convince you that anyone can learn math, it should be a short step to convincing you that you can learn just about anything, if you work hard enough.

Is America more susceptible than other nations to the dangerous idea of genetic math ability? Here our evidence is only anecdotal, but we suspect that this is the case. While American fourth and eighth graders score quite well in international math comparisons—beating countries like Germany, the UK and Sweden—our high-schoolers  underperform those countries by a wide margin. This suggests that Americans’ native ability is just as good as anyone’s, but that we fail to capitalize on that ability through hard work. In response to the lackluster high school math performance, some influential voices in American education policy have suggested simply teaching less math—for example, Andrew Hacker has called for algebra to no longer be a requirement. The subtext, of course, is that large numbers of American kids are simply not born with the ability to solve for x.

We believe that this approach is disastrous and wrong. First of all, it leaves many Americans ill-prepared to compete in a global marketplace with hard-working foreigners. But even more importantly, it may contribute to inequality. A great deal of research has shown that technical skills in areas like software are increasingly making the difference between America’s upper middle class and its working class. While we don’t think education is a cure-all for inequality, we definitely believe that in an increasingly automated workplace, Americans who give up on math are selling themselves short.

Too many Americans go through life terrified of equations and mathematical symbols. We think what many of them are afraid of is “proving” themselves to be genetically inferior by failing to instantly comprehend the equations (when, of course, in reality, even a math professor would have to read closely). So they recoil from anything that looks like math, protesting: “I’m not a math person.” And so they exclude themselves from quite a few lucrative career opportunities. We believe that this has to stop. Our view is shared by economist and writer Allison Schrager, who has written two wonderful columns in Quartz(here and here), that echo many of our views.

One way to help Americans excel at math is to copy the approach of the Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans.  In Intelligence and How to Get It, Nisbett describes how the educational systems of East Asian countries focus more on hard work than on inborn talent:

1. “Children in Japan go to school about 240 days a year, whereas children in the United States go to school about 180 days a year.”
2. “Japanese high school students of the 1980s studied 3 ½ hours a day, and that number is likely to be, if anything, higher today.”
3. “[The inhabitants of Japan and Korea] do not need to read this book to find out that intelligence and intellectual accomplishment are highly malleable. Confucius set that matter straight twenty-five hundred years ago.”
4. “When they do badly at something, [Japanese, Koreans, etc.] respond by working harder at it.”
5. “Persistence in the face of failure is very much part of the Asian tradition of self-improvement. And [people in those countries] are accustomed to criticism in the service of self-improvement in situations where Westerners avoid it or resent it.”

We certainly don’t want America’s education system to copy everything Japan does (and we remain agnostic regarding the wisdom of Confucius). But it seems to us that an emphasis on hard work is a hallmark not just of modern East Asia, but of America’s past as well. In returning to an emphasis on effort, America would be returning to its roots, not just copying from successful foreigners.

Besides cribbing a few tricks from the Japanese, we also have at least one American-style idea for making kids smarter: treat people who work hard at learning as heroes and role models. We already venerate sports heroes who make up for lack of talent through persistence and grit; why should our educational culture be any different?
Math education, we believe, is just the most glaring area of a slow and worrying shift. We see our country moving away from a culture of hard work toward a culture of belief in genetic determinism. In the debate between “nature vs. nurture,” a critical third element—personal perseverance and effort—seems to have been sidelined. We want to bring it back, and we think that math is the best place to start.

There’s one key difference between kids who excel at math and those who don’t

27 10 2013

There’s one key difference between kids who excel at math and those who don’t

By Miles Kimball and Noah Smith October 27, 2013

Miles Kimball is an economics professor at the University of Michigan. He blogs about economics, politics and religion.

Noah Smith is an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University. His blog is Noahpinion.

People in China, Japan, and Korea are more accustomed to criticism as a means to self-improvement, whereas Westerners avoid it or resent it. Reuters/Lee Jae Won

“I’m just not a math person.”

We hear it all the time. And we’ve had enough. Because we believe that the idea of “math people” is the most self-destructive idea in America today. The truth is, you probably are a math person, and by thinking otherwise, you are possibly hamstringing your own career. Worse, you may be helping to perpetuate a pernicious myth that is harming underprivileged children—the myth of inborn genetic math ability.

Is math ability genetic? Sure, to some degree. Terence Tao, UCLA’s famous virtuoso mathematician, publishes dozens of papers in top journals every year, and is sought out by researchers around the world to help with the hardest parts of their theories. Essentially none of us could ever be as good at math as Terence Tao, no matter how hard we tried or how well we were taught. But here’s the thing: We don’t have to! For high school math, inborn talent is just much less important than hard work, preparation, and self-confidence.

How do we know this? First of all, both of us have taught math for many years—as professors, teaching assistants, and private tutors. Again and again, we have seen the following pattern repeat itself:

Different kids with different levels of preparation come into a math class. Some of these kids have parents who have drilled them on math from a young age, while others never had that kind of parental input.

  1. On the first few tests, the well-prepared kids get perfect scores, while the unprepared kids get only what they could figure out by winging it—maybe 80 or 85%, a solid B.
  2. The unprepared kids, not realizing that the top scorers were well-prepared, assume that genetic ability was what determined the performance differences. Deciding that they “just aren’t math people,” they don’t try hard in future classes, and fall further behind.
  3. The well-prepared kids, not realizing that the B students were simply unprepared, assume that they are “math people,” and work hard in the future, cementing their advantage.

Thus, people’s belief that math ability can’t change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The idea that math ability is mostly genetic is one dark facet of a larger fallacy that intelligence is mostly genetic. Academic psychology journals are well stocked with papers studying the world view that lies behind the kind of self-fulfilling prophecy we just described. For example, Purdue University psychologist Patricia Linehan writes:

A body of research on conceptions of ability has shown two orientations toward ability. Students with an Incremental orientation believe ability (intelligence) to be malleable, a quality that increases with effort. Students with an Entity orientation believe ability to be nonmalleable, a fixed quality of self that does not increase with effort.

The “entity orientation” that says “You are smart or not, end of story,” leads to bad outcomes—a result that has been confirmed by many other studies. (The relevance for math is shown by researchers at Oklahoma City who recently found that belief in inborn math ability may be responsible for much of the gender gap in mathematics.)
Psychologists Lisa Blackwell, Kali Trzesniewski, and Carol Dweck presented these alternatives to determine people’s beliefs about intelligence:

You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you really can’t do much to change it.

  1. You can always greatly change how intelligent you are.

They found that students who agreed that “You can always greatly change how intelligent you are” got higher grades. But as Richard Nisbett recounts in his bookIntelligence and How to Get It, they did something even more remarkable:

Dweck and her colleagues then tried to convince a group of poor minority junior high school students that intelligence is highly malleable and can be developed by hard work…that learning changes the brain by forming new…connections and that students are in charge of this change process.

The results? Convincing students that they could make themselves smarter by hard work led them to work harder and get higher grades. The intervention had the biggest effect for students who started out believing intelligence was genetic. (A control group, who were taught how memory works, showed no such gains.)
 But improving grades was not the most dramatic effect, “Dweck reported that some of her tough junior high school boys were reduced to tears by the news that their intelligence was substantially under their control.” It is no picnic going through life believing you were born dumb—and are doomed to stay that way.

For almost everyone, believing that you were born dumb—and are doomed to stay that way—is believing a lie. IQ itself can improve with hard work. Because the truth may be hard to believe, here is a set of links about some excellent books to convince you that most people can become smart in many ways, if they work hard enough:

So why do we focus on math? For one thing, math skills are increasingly important for getting good jobs these days—so believing you can’t learn math is especially self-destructive. But we also believe that math is the area where America’s “fallacy of inborn ability” is the most entrenched. Math is the great mental bogeyman of an unconfident America. If we can convince you that anyone can learn math, it should be a short step to convincing you that you can learn just about anything, if you work hard enough.

Is America more susceptible than other nations to the dangerous idea of genetic math ability? Here our evidence is only anecdotal, but we suspect that this is the case. While American fourth and eighth graders score quite well in international math comparisons—beating countries like Germany, the UK and Sweden—our high-schoolers  underperform those countries by a wide margin. This suggests that Americans’ native ability is just as good as anyone’s, but that we fail to capitalize on that ability through hard work. In response to the lackluster high school math performance, some influential voices in American education policy have suggested simply teaching less math—for example, Andrew Hacker has called for algebra to no longer be a requirement. The subtext, of course, is that large numbers of American kids are simply not born with the ability to solve for x.

We believe that this approach is disastrous and wrong. First of all, it leaves many Americans ill-prepared to compete in a global marketplace with hard-working foreigners. But even more importantly, it may contribute to inequality. A great deal of research has shown that technical skills in areas like software are increasingly making the difference between America’s upper middle class and its working class. While we don’t think education is a cure-all for inequality, we definitely believe that in an increasingly automated workplace, Americans who give up on math are selling themselves short.

Too many Americans go through life terrified of equations and mathematical symbols. We think what many of them are afraid of is “proving” themselves to be genetically inferior by failing to instantly comprehend the equations (when, of course, in reality, even a math professor would have to read closely). So they recoil from anything that looks like math, protesting: “I’m not a math person.” And so they exclude themselves from quite a few lucrative career opportunities. We believe that this has to stop. Our view is shared by economist and writer Allison Schrager, who has written two wonderful columns in Quartz (here and here), that echo many of our views.
One way to help Americans excel at math is to copy the approach of the Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans.  In Intelligence and How to Get It, Nisbett describes how the educational systems of East Asian countries focus more on hard work than on inborn talent:
             1. “Children in Japan go to school about 240 days a year, whereas children in the United States go to                              school about 180 days a year.”

2. “Japanese high school students of the 1980s studied 3 ½ hours a day, and that number is likely to be, if anything, higher today.”

3. “[The inhabitants of Japan and Korea] do not need to read this book to find out that intelligence and intellectual accomplishment are highly malleable. Confucius set that matter straight twenty-five hundred years ago.”

4. “When they do badly at something, [Japanese, Koreans, etc.] respond by working harder at it.”

5. “Persistence in the face of failure is very much part of the Asian tradition of self-improvement. And [people in those countries] are accustomed to criticism in the service of self-improvement in situations where Westerners avoid it or resent it.”

We certainly don’t want America’s education system to copy everything Japan does (and we remain agnostic regarding the wisdom of Confucius). But it seems to us that an emphasis on hard work is a hallmark not just of modern East Asia, but of America’s past as well. In returning to an emphasis on effort, America would be returning to its roots, not just copying from successful foreigners.

Besides cribbing a few tricks from the Japanese, we also have at least one American-style idea for making kids smarter: treat people who work hard at learning as heroes and role models. We already venerate sports heroes who make up for lack of talent through persistence and grit; why should our educational culture be any different?

Math education, we believe, is just the most glaring area of a slow and worrying shift. We see our country moving away from a culture of hard work toward a culture of belief in genetic determinism. In the debate between “nature vs. nurture,” a critical third element—personal perseverance and effort—seems to have been sidelined. We want to bring it back, and we think that math is the best place to start.

The Psychology of Getting Unstuck: How to Overcome the “OK Plateau” of Performance & Personal Growth

20 10 2013


“When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend.”

“Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself,”William James wrote in his influential meditation on habit”so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances.” As we’ve seen, one of the most insidious forms of such habitual autopilot — which evolved to help lighten our cognitive load yet is a double-edged sword that can also hurt us — is our mercilessly selective everyday attention, but the phenomenon is particularly perilous when it comes to learning new skills. In a chapter of Maximize Your Potential (public library) — that fantastic guide tomaking your own luck, the sequel to 99U’s blueprint to mastering the pace of productivity and honing your creative routine— science writer Joshua Foer explores the mechanisms that keep us from improving and the strategies we can use to disarm them. He sketches out the problem:

In the 1960s, psychologists identified three stages that we pass through in the acquisition of new skills. We start in the “cognitive phase,” during which we’re intellectualizing the task, discovering new strategies to perform better, and making lots of mistakes. We’re consciously focusing on what we’re doing. Then we enter the “associative stage,” when we’re making fewer errors, and gradually getting better. Finally, we arrive at the “autonomous stage,” when we turn on autopilot and move the skill to the back of our proverbial mental filing cabinet and stop paying it conscious attention.

And so we get to the so-called “OK Plateau” — the point at which our autopilot of expertise confines us to a sort of comfort zone, where we perform the task in question in efficient enough a way that we cease caring for improvement. We reach this OK Plateau in pursuing just about every goal, from learning to drive to mastering a foreign language to dieting, where after an initial stage of rapid improvement, we find ourselves in that place at once comforting in its good-enoughness and demotivating in its sudden dip in positive reinforcement via palpable betterment.


Color restoration of archival Einstein photograph by Mads Madsen


The challenge, of course, is that we can’t get better on autopilot. Fortunately, psychologists have found a number of strategies to help us overcome this stagnation by overriding our auto-mode — and it turns out the benefits of reflective failure and the art of making mistakes play a key role, something to which J. K. Rowling has attested. Foer writes:

Something experts in all fields tend to do when they’re practicing is to operate outside of their comfort zone and study themselves failing. The best figure skaters in the world spend more of their practice time practicing jumps that they don’t land than lesser figure skaters do. The same is true of musicians. When most musicians sit down to practice, they play the parts of pieces that they’re good at. Of course they do: it’s fun to succeed. But expert musicians tend to focus on the parts that are hard, the parts they haven’t yet mastered. The way to get better at a skill is to force yourself to practice just beyond your limits.

Foer first bumped up against the OK Plateau while working on Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything(public library) — the fascinating record of his quest to dramatically improve his memory’s capacity using a combination of ancient wisdom and modern science. After spending several months learning to memorize a deck of playing cards, he rapidly plateaued, but his memory-mentor assured him this was the standard course of improvement. Intrigued, Doer dusted off the work of psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner, the researchers who had discovered those three stages of skill acquisition — cognitive, associative, and autonomous. The autonomous stage in particular was what interested Foer the most:

During the autonomous stage, you lose conscious control over what you’re doing. Most of the time that’s a good thing. Your mind has one less thing to worry about. In fact, the autonomous stage turns out to be one of those handy features that evolution worked out for our benefit. The less you have to focus on the repetitive tasks of everyday life, the more you can concentrate on the stuff that really matters, the stuff that you haven’t seen before. And so, once we’re just good enough at [something], we move it to the back of our mind’s filing cabinet and stop paying it any attention. You can actually see this shift take place in fMRI scans of people learning new skills. As a task becomes automated, the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active and other parts of the brain take over. [This is] the “OK Plateau,” the point at which you decide you’re OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.

Early psychologists, Foer tells us, used to believe the OK Plateau signified the upper limit of one’s innate capacity — in other words, they thought the best we can do is the best we could do. But Florida State University’s Anders Ericsson and his team of performance psychologists, who have studied the phenomenon closely, found that the single most important factor for overcoming the OK Plateau to become truly exceptional at a skill is the same thing that turned young Mozart into a genius and that drives successful authors to their rigorous routines. Foer writes:

What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson has labeled “deliberate practice.” Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, he has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive stage.”


The Mozart family on tour: Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolor by Carmontelle, 1763 (public domain)


And yet, Foer is careful to point out, the mere amount of practice has little to do with improvement — it is, rather, its deliberateness that drives progress. In fact, studies have shown that in areas of expertise as diverse as basketball and chess the number of years one has spent honing the respective skill correlates only weakly with the degree of mastery and level of performance. What Ericsson found, rather, is that the best way to transcend the OK Plateau and reboot the autonomous stage is to cultivate conscious control over the thing we’re practicing and, above all, to actually practice failing:

Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard.

When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. … Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.

Complement Maximize Your Potential and Moonwalking with Einstein, both excellent reads in their entirety, with philosopher Daniel Dennett on how to make mistakes that improve us and some of today’s most celebrated contemporary creators on how to break through your creative block.

The Psychology of Getting Unstuck: How to Overcome the “OK Plateau” of Performance & Personal Growth

20 10 2013


“When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend.”

“Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself,”William James wrote in his influential meditation on habit”so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances.” As we’ve seen, one of the most insidious forms of such habitual autopilot — which evolved to help lighten our cognitive load yet is a double-edged sword that can also hurt us — is our mercilessly selective everyday attention, but the phenomenon is particularly perilous when it comes to learning new skills. In a chapter of Maximize Your Potential (public library) — that fantastic guide tomaking your own luck, the sequel to 99U’s blueprint to mastering the pace of productivity and honing your creative routine— science writer Joshua Foer explores the mechanisms that keep us from improving and the strategies we can use to disarm them. He sketches out the problem:

In the 1960s, psychologists identified three stages that we pass through in the acquisition of new skills. We start in the “cognitive phase,” during which we’re intellectualizing the task, discovering new strategies to perform better, and making lots of mistakes. We’re consciously focusing on what we’re doing. Then we enter the “associative stage,” when we’re making fewer errors, and gradually getting better. Finally, we arrive at the “autonomous stage,” when we turn on autopilot and move the skill to the back of our proverbial mental filing cabinet and stop paying it conscious attention.

And so we get to the so-called “OK Plateau” — the point at which our autopilot of expertise confines us to a sort of comfort zone, where we perform the task in question in efficient enough a way that we cease caring for improvement. We reach this OK Plateau in pursuing just about every goal, from learning to drive to mastering a foreign language to dieting, where after an initial stage of rapid improvement, we find ourselves in that place at once comforting in its good-enoughness and demotivating in its sudden dip in positive reinforcement via palpable betterment.


Color restoration of archival Einstein photograph by Mads Madsen


The challenge, of course, is that we can’t get better on autopilot. Fortunately, psychologists have found a number of strategies to help us overcome this stagnation by overriding our auto-mode — and it turns out the benefits of reflective failure and the art of making mistakes play a key role, something to which J. K. Rowling has attested. Foer writes:

Something experts in all fields tend to do when they’re practicing is to operate outside of their comfort zone and study themselves failing. The best figure skaters in the world spend more of their practice time practicing jumps that they don’t land than lesser figure skaters do. The same is true of musicians. When most musicians sit down to practice, they play the parts of pieces that they’re good at. Of course they do: it’s fun to succeed. But expert musicians tend to focus on the parts that are hard, the parts they haven’t yet mastered. The way to get better at a skill is to force yourself to practice just beyond your limits.

Foer first bumped up against the OK Plateau while working on Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything(public library) — the fascinating record of his quest to dramatically improve his memory’s capacity using a combination of ancient wisdom and modern science. After spending several months learning to memorize a deck of playing cards, he rapidly plateaued, but his memory-mentor assured him this was the standard course of improvement. Intrigued, Doer dusted off the work of psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner, the researchers who had discovered those three stages of skill acquisition — cognitive, associative, and autonomous. The autonomous stage in particular was what interested Foer the most:

During the autonomous stage, you lose conscious control over what you’re doing. Most of the time that’s a good thing. Your mind has one less thing to worry about. In fact, the autonomous stage turns out to be one of those handy features that evolution worked out for our benefit. The less you have to focus on the repetitive tasks of everyday life, the more you can concentrate on the stuff that really matters, the stuff that you haven’t seen before. And so, once we’re just good enough at [something], we move it to the back of our mind’s filing cabinet and stop paying it any attention. You can actually see this shift take place in fMRI scans of people learning new skills. As a task becomes automated, the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active and other parts of the brain take over. [This is] the “OK Plateau,” the point at which you decide you’re OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.

Early psychologists, Foer tells us, used to believe the OK Plateau signified the upper limit of one’s innate capacity — in other words, they thought the best we can do is the best we could do. But Florida State University’s Anders Ericsson and his team of performance psychologists, who have studied the phenomenon closely, found that the single most important factor for overcoming the OK Plateau to become truly exceptional at a skill is the same thing that turned young Mozart into a genius and that drives successful authors to their rigorous routines. Foer writes:

What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson has labeled “deliberate practice.” Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, he has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive stage.”


The Mozart family on tour: Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolor by Carmontelle, 1763 (public domain)


And yet, Foer is careful to point out, the mere amount of practice has little to do with improvement — it is, rather, its deliberateness that drives progress. In fact, studies have shown that in areas of expertise as diverse as basketball and chess the number of years one has spent honing the respective skill correlates only weakly with the degree of mastery and level of performance. What Ericsson found, rather, is that the best way to transcend the OK Plateau and reboot the autonomous stage is to cultivate conscious control over the thing we’re practicing and, above all, to actually practice failing:

Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard.

When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. … Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.

Complement Maximize Your Potential and Moonwalking with Einstein, both excellent reads in their entirety, with philosopher Daniel Dennett on how to make mistakes that improve us and some of today’s most celebrated contemporary creators on how to break through your creative block.

7 Simple, Science-Backed Ways to Boost School Success

7 10 2013

Hasil Penelusuran Gambar Google untuk

Academic success impacts our children for the rest of their life: it influences their self-esteem, college selections, job attainment, financial success, and even their choice of spouses. It’s no wonder we go great lengths to give our kids an academic edge.

Despite our good intentions we often overlook a few simple strategies that research has proven to impact children’s academic success. Even better, these seven science-backed solutions are things that every parent can do, don’t cost a dime, and are proven to boost school success.

1. Make sure kids get enough zzz’s

In one recent study, Tel Aviv University researchers found that missing just one hour of sleep can be enough to reduce a child’s cognitive abilities by almost two years the next day. For example, a sixth grader who loses precious zzz’s the night before a big test could end up performing at a fourth grade level.

A lack of sleep can have a serious impact on children’s abilities to learn and perform at school.

Set a bedtime and keep to it every single night.

Flashing images affect REM, so be sure to turn off the computer and television at least thirty minutes prior to bedtime.

Watch out for caffeinated sleep stealers like cold medications, chocolate, and those energy-drinks.

Take away the cell phones during nighttime hours—62% of kids admit they use it after the lights go out and their parents are clueless.

2. Applaud efforts the right way

Carol Dweck’s research at Columbia University found that how we praise our kids’ schoolwork can enhance or impede achievement. For example, instead of encouraging your child to bring home straight A’s, put the emphasis on how hard she is working. This will encourage her to persist and it will help to sustain her motivation.

Kids who are praised for their persistence are more likely to blame any failure they have on not trying hard enough, rather than on a lack of ability (a belief which can discourage kids very easily).

Above all, keep in mind that the grade is not what motivates a top student to succeed-it’s their inner drive for learning.

3. Respect their learning style

If your son insists on plugging into his iPod when he studies, or if your daughter swears that flash cards are the only way she can learn her spelling words- listen up! While you may prefer a quiet room with no distractions when it comes to getting work done, that doesn’t mean it’s the best way for your kids to concentrate and get down to business.

Harvard researcher, Howard Gardner’s work shows there are eight kinds of intelligences-or ways kids learn best-which include: musical, spatial, logical-mathematical, linguistic, bodily, intrapersonal, interpersonal and naturalist.

The trick is to pay attention to how your kid learns best so you can identify their unique learn style (not yours!) and then tap into it help them be more successful. For instance, if your child learns best by remembering what she sees, point it out to her and encourage her to draw, mindmap or draw those images.

4. Pay attention to peers

Pals play an enormous part of our kids’ self-esteem, and research also reveals that who our kids befriend can affect their study habits and their overall academic success.

The truth of the matter is that peer pressure can have both positive and negative consequences on a child’s education. If your child chooses friends who believe that education is important, chances are she will adopt those attitudes and put more emphasis into hitting the books harder and focusing more in class. On the flip side, if your child is best buddies with a kid who stays distracted during class, doesn’t turn in homework assignments, and rarely studies before a big test, chances are she will fall in line with their bad habits.

An Ohio State University study found that kids are more likely to have friends with future college plans if they have a warm, positive relationship with their parents. So cultivate that kind of parenting style and you’ll help your child make the right friendship decisions! And encourage your child to seek out pals with like-minded educational values.

5. Make family meals a must

A recent study by Columbia University showed that kids whose families eat regular, relaxed meal together are not only less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and develop eating disorders-they are also more likely to achieve higher grades.

Family dinners do not have to consist of gourmet, five-course meals. Serve simple, healthy meals, turn off the television and unplug the phone, and enjoy each other’s company. And if everyone in your family is on a different schedule and can’t make it to dinner- don’t worry!

Consider instating an evening family snack time where everyone can review their days with each other before bedtime.

The trick is to find what works best for you family and turn it into a routine. Keep in mind it’s not the macaroni and cheese dish has nothing to do with giving your kid the academic edge. It’s those informal: “How was your day?” “What are you discussing in science?” “How do you plan to study for that test?” kind of discussion topics that let your kid know your family prioritizes education.

6. Squelch the stress…at home

Research shows that the conflict kids face at home spills over into their school life and impedes their learning. In fact, family-induced stress can affect kids’ learning and behavior for up to two days following an incident.

So take a vow of ‘yellibacy.’ Make your home a stress-free zone.

Find ways to de-stress with your kids. Take longs walks, read together, do yoga, or have a family movie night.  Be a model to them on how to disagree without it ending in a screaming match. Teach your kids that it’s okay for them to walk away from an argument until they are calm enough to return. Teach your child healthy ways to reduce stress. Tune into your child’s unique stress signs, so you’ll be able to recognize when he’s on overload, help him learn to identify his own stressors (and triggers) so that you can intervene and help him to decompress before something comes to blows.

7. Tailor expectations to your child’s abilities

All parents want the very best for their kids. It’s only natural!

As a parent, you should consider your learning aspirations for your child like a rubber band: gently stretch but don’t snap.

Every child is different, and while its okay to encourage her to try hard and achieve her best, it’s also important to remember that ‘What’s best’ is different for every child. Just because your kid isn’t composing his own symphonies or writing his memoirs by age 10, doesn’t mean that he won’t still do great things with his life. Always remember this one commandment: ‘Tailor thy parenting only to thy child’. You and your children will be happier and healthier for it, as well as succeed.

Final thoughts

If you want to boost your kid’s academic performance and see lasting results, it will take a few things from you: consistency, dedication, and patience.

Form a partnership with your child’s teacher..the more you’re on the same page the better for your child.

When your child continues to struggle..get help! Those things are always better parenting tools than anything money can buy.

Remember that no two kids are the same, even if they come from the same household. If you pay attention to the individual needs of each child and do what’s right for them and for you, you’ll see the payoff in their attitudes and their report cards in no time.

Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert

I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books including The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries.

You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news and research about child development.

Classroom Sneak Peek – Common Core Mathematical Practice #1

14 09 2013

detective_2462446bPosted January 18th, 2012 by Michelle Flaming

The common core standards are here and it’s time we start reflecting about the necessary changes that will be needed to meet these standards in the classroom.  This blog is designed to first look at the mathematical practice and then to put into what the classroom should look like, feel like, and sound like.  Teacher questioning will be critical to the success of the CCSS vision, so we will also explore this.  If you are interested in this process to facilitate this discussion with your staff, read What Do the Common Core Standards Look Like in the Classroom.

1. Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.

-Mathematically proficient students start by explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem and looking for entry points to its solution.  They analyze givens, constraints, relationships, and goals.

-They make conjectures about the form and meaning of the solution and plan a solution pathway rather than simply jumping into a solution attempt.

-They consider analogous problems, and try special cases and simpler forms of the original problem in order to gain insight into its solution.

-They monitor and evaluate their progress and change course if necessary.

-Older students might, depending on the context of the problem, transform algebraic expressions or change the viewing window on their graphing calculator to get the information they need.  Mathematically proficient students can explain correspondences between equations, verbal descriptions, tables, and graphs or draw diagrams of important features and relationships, graph data, and search for regularity or trends. Younger students might rely on using concrete objects or pictures to help conceptualize and solve a problem.

-Mathematically proficient students check their answers to problems using a different method, and they continually ask themselves, “Does this make sense?” They can understand the approaches of others to solving complex problems and identify correspondences between different approaches.

Explain, analyze, make conjectures, monitor, evaluate, check their answers.

So what does this really look like?  The chart below is a work in progress.  I’ve designed this with the expertise of many classroom teachers.  If you have other ideas, please don’t hesitate to email me and share your expertise as well.

Mathematical Practice: #1 Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.

Student Actions:

Teacher Actions:

Open-Ended Questions:

  • Feel like a detective or mathematician, look for clues and evidence on how to solve the problem
  • Believe they are a mathematician and can solve the problem and understand that mistakes are the way we learn.
  • Talk to other students about how they might solve the problem. (Partner, small group, or whole group discussion)
  • Think about and tries several ways to solve the problem
  • Use a variety of mathematical tools to solve the problem
  • Reflect about what the problem is asking
  • Write about how they solved the problem
  • Listen to other students and may change their own strategy based upon the thinking of others
  • Understand other student strategies
  • Share their thinking and solution.
  • Create a classroom climate where struggle is expected and that making mistakes are OK.
  • Provide students with word problems and real-world scenarios and encourage a variety of tools and strategies.
  • Discuss appropriate behavior for respectful dialogue.
  • Give students individual think time before discussing with a partner. Set a timer for three minutes for individual think time.
  • Frame math challenges that are clear and explicit.
  • Check in periodically to check student clarity and thought process.
  • If students are stuck, scaffold the problem to a simpler problem. Ask students, how the problems are similar and how they are different.
  • Set up structures requiring students to connect different forms of the problem (equation to graph, table, etc.)
  • Students share out different strategies for solving the problem.
  • What do you know about the problem?
  • What is being asked?
  • What problems have we solved before like this problem?
  • How might talking to ______ help you?
  • What might be another way to solve this problem?
  • How is ____ strategy like yours? How is it different?
  • How might a number line help you?
  • How is your graph connected to your equation?
  • How does your equation match the problem?
  • How might acting out the story help you solve the problem?
  • What made you decide to use that strategy?
  • What made you choose that operation?
Possible Activities:
1.     Be a math detective – Discuss the job of detectives, ” To look for clues/evidence and solve mysteries.”

2.     Provide story problems and allow students to struggle with solutions.

3.     Ask students to show three ways to solve the problem  (Give individual think time prior to   group)

4.     Look at different student work (remove names and replace with Student 1 and Student 2)  Ask, “what is this mathematician thinking or trying to figure out.”

5.     Provide real world, high quality tasks.

6.     Keep in mind the level of cognitive demand from this practice:

– Explain, analyze, make conjectures, monitor, evaluate, check their answers.


“Struggling in mathematics is not the enemy any more than sweating is in basketball, it’s a clear sign you are in the game.”  – Kim Sutton

– See more at:

Six Ways To Motivate Students To Learn

3 09 2013

 | September 2, 2013 | 




Scientific research has provided us with a number of ways to get the learning juices flowing, none of which involve paying money for good grades. And most smart teachers know this, even without scientific proof.

1.   Fine-tune the challenge. We’re most motivated to learn when the task before us is matched to our level of skill: not so easy as to be boring, and not so hard as to be frustrating. Deliberately fashion the learning exercise so that students are working at the very edge of your abilities, and keep upping the difficulty as they improve.

2.  Start with the question, not the answer. Memorizing information is boring. Discovering the solution to a puzzle is invigorating. Present material to be learned not as a fait accompli, but as a live question begging to be explored.

3.   Encourage students to beat their personal best. Some learning tasks, like memorizing the multiplication table or a list of names or facts, are simply not interesting in themselves. Generate motivation by encouraging students to compete against themselves: run through the material once to establish a baseline, then keep track of how much they improve (in speed, in accuracy) each time.

4.   Connect abstract learning to concrete situations. Adopt the case-study method that has proven so effective for business, medical and law school students: apply abstract theories and concepts to a real-world scenario, using these formulations to analyze and make sense of situations involving real people and real stakes.

5.   Make it social. Put together a learning group, or have students find learning partners with whom they can share their moments of discovery and points of confusion. Divide the learning task into parts, and take turns being teacher and pupil. The simple act of explaining what they’re learning out loud will help them understand and remember it better.

6.   Go deep. Almost any subject is interesting once you get inside it. Assign the task of becoming the world’s expert on one small aspect of the material they have to learn—then extend their new expertise outward by exploring how the piece they know so well connects to all the other pieces they need to know about.

Qualities of Engaging Student Work

1 09 2013

A critical factor for improving learning lies in providing high-quality work for students- work that engages students, work that enables

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students to learn what they need in order to succeed in the world.

The traits of engaging student work listed below evolved from Dr. Phillip Schlechty’s book, Working on the Work(Note: each of the listed qualities of engaging work below is a hot-link that will scroll down the page to a short description of the trait, along with some examples of what the trait looks like in the hands of the learner – paired with non-examples, for clarity.)

Personal Response – More than one right answer

Work that engages students almost always focuses on a product or performance of significance to students.  When students explain their answers (or the logic and reasoning behind those answers), they are invested in their personal response.

What it looks like:

  • Supported predictions
  • Opinions
  • Remembrances
  • Connections
  • Comparisons
  • Analogies
  • Summary Statements
  • Strategies
  • “I think…because…”

It is not: Recall of answers, Only one answer possible, Only one answer accepted

Caution: Optimal personal response is based upon activities that force all students to articulate their ideas (rather than four or five students).  For that reason, written personal response may be more powerful than oral response.

Clear/Modeled Expectations – Student knows what success “looks like”

Students prefer knowing exactly what is expected of them, and how those expectations relate to something they care about.  Standards are only relevant when those to whom they apply care about them.

What it looks like:

  • Clear objective of activity & learning
  • Models of expectation and strategy
  • Visual exemplars that persist
  • Rubrics & self-assessment
  • Clear formats & procedures
  • Sources
  • Quantity & quality required in personal response activities
  • “I included…”

It is not: Oral explanations by teacher; Inconsistent expectations; “Grading”

Emotional/Intellectual Safety – Freedom to take risks

Students are more engaged when they try tasks without fear of embarrassment, punishment, or implications that they are inadequate.  Personal response activities that students must support with logic, reasoning or explanation require more intellectual safety than answering a question that has only one right answer.

What it looks like:

  • Students explain why/how their answer is plausible
  • Students take risks with “unpopular” or more subtle answers
  • Sources, evidence & examples are cited
  • Reasoning first, answers second
  • Answers questioned or defended
  • “I disagree with the author because…”

It is not: Answering single-answer questions, answers without explanation, students being “correct” or “incorrect,” students critiqued

Learning with Others (Affiliation) – Learning has a social component

Students are more likely to be engaged by work that permits, encourages, and supports opportunities for them to work interdependently with others.  Those who advocate cooperative learning understand this well, and also recognize the critical difference between students working together and students working together independently on a common task (which may look like group work, but isn’t).

What it looks like:

  • Think, pair, share
  • Literature circles
  • Small group discussion
  • Reciprocal teaching
  • Peer revision or review
  • Student A reports/paraphrases student B’s thoughts
  • “When David talked about the symbolism, I thought…”

It is not: Taking turns talking, group grades in isolation

Sense of Audience – Student work is shared

Students are more highly motivated when their parents, teachers, fellow students, and “significant others” make it known that they think the student’s work is important.  Portfolio assignments- which collect student work for scrutiny by people other than the teacher- can play a significant role in making student work “more visible.”

What it looks like:

  • Increased level of concern
  • Connections to audience/purpose
  • Voice
  • Responsibility to the group
  • Proficient work posted
  • Student work as exemplars
  • The ballgame, the concert, the play
  • “When I finish this business letter, I will mail it to…”

It is not: Being “singled out”

ChoiceStudents have meaningful options

When students have some degree of control over what they are doing, they are more likely to feel committed to doing it.  This doesn’t mean students should dictate school curriculum, however: schools must distinguish between giving students choices in what they do and letting them choose what they will learn.

What it looks like:

  • Tiered assignments
  • Self-selected reading material
  • Product
  • Selecting tasks from a list
  • Meaningful options
  • Decision-making
  • “I chose to present my thoughts in graphic form”

It is not: Opting out of standards; avoiding an assignment; overwhelming choices

Novelty and Variety – Learning experiences are unusual or unexpected

Students are more likely to engage in the work asked of them if they are continuously exposed to new and different ways of doing things.  The use of technology in writing classes, for example, might motivate students who otherwise would not write.  New technology and techniques, however, shouldn’t be used to create new ways to do the same old work- new forms of work and new products are equally important.

What it looks like:

  • Variety of products
  • Diverse perspectives
  • Integrated fun
  • Layered interests
  • Games
  • Simulations and role-play
  • Competitions
  • Responding “in the voice of…”
  • “Rather than working problems in math, we wrote two new work problems”

It is not: Chaos; lack of procedure or protocols

Sense of Audience – Student work is shared

Students are more highly motivated when their parents, teachers, fellow students, and “significant others” make it known that they think the student’s work is important.  Portfolio assignments- which collect student work for scrutiny by people other than the teacher- can play a significant role in making student work “more visible.”

What it looks like:

  • Increased level of concern
  • Connections to audience/purpose
  • Voice
  • Responsibility to the group
  • Proficient work posted
  • Student work as exemplars
  • The ballgame, the concert, the play
  • “When I finish this business letter, I will mail it to…”

It is not: Being “singled out”

 Authenticity- Connections to experience or prior learning

This term is bandied about quite often by educators, so much that the power of the concept is sometimes lost.  Clearly, however, when students are given tasks that are meaningless, contrived, and inconsequential, they are less likely to take them seriously and be engaged by them.

What it looks like:

  • Relevance to age group
  • Tasks that represent the personalities of the learners
  • Real-life activities
  • Inquiry or discovery learning
  • Hands-on manipulative
  • Current events/issues
  • “Learn, then label”
  • Transfer or synthesis beyond content
  • Extension of workplace activities
  • Use of workplace or home technology

It is not: Vocabulary in isolation; Contrived activities; Practice without context; Repetition of low-level work



The Math Magician Expand your brain with Mr. X!!

27 08 2013
Bob Bishop is internationally known as the Math Magician. He visits many school each year to share the wonder of math. He has traveled from Boston to Los Angeles to Taiwan amazing and motivating teachers and students.Appearing as Mister X (The Illusionist), The Math Magician, Einstein, or even the Zany Dr. Lamebrain, he teaches teachers with keynotes and workshops and gives students long remembered workshops and assemblies. His classroom experience and training in brain-based education gives him unique insight into the vital need for quality math education to keep our country on the innovative edge.Bob Bishop, creator of Odyssey Learning Adventures, has loved math, games, and puzzles since he was a child. He shares from his passion to motivate students to love math. He has been a classroom teacher for Elementary, High School and Middle school for over 20 years.

Bob’s commitment and passion for math are obvious as he teaches. Bob’s programs are fun, dynamic and intellectually engaging.

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12 Comedian Quotes for When Your Job Makes You Want to Cry

27 08 2013

That motivation might come from an unexpected place, like the words of comedians. Funny folks like Amy Poehler and Louis C.K. might seem more likely to tickle your funny bone than inspire your thoughts, but if you stop laughing for a moment, you might learn something.

Even if you’re not looking to switch careers or aren’t quite ready to take a job leap, these 12 quotes should at least inspire you to be a slightly better version of you today.

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Creating Classrooms We Need: 8 Ways Into Inquiry Learning

25 07 2013

| March 11, 2013 |

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Flickr: Scratchpost

If kids can access information from sources other than school, and if school is no longer the only place where information lives, what, then happens to the role of this institution?

“Our whole reason for showing up for school has changed, but infrastructure has stayed behind,” said Diana Laufenberg, who taught history at the progressive public school Science Leadership Academy for many years. Laufenberg provided some insight into how she guided students to find their own learning paths at school, and enumerated some of these ideas at SXSWEdu last week.

1.   BE FLEXIBLE. The less educators try to control what kids learn, the more students’ voices will be heard and, eventually, their ability to drive their own learning. But that requires a flexible mindset on the part of the teacher. “That’s a scary proposition for teachers,” Laufenberg said. “‘What do you mean I’m going to have 60 kids doing 60 different projects,’ teachers might say. But that’s exactly the way for kids to do interesting, high-end work that they’re invested in.”

Laufenberg recalled a group of tenacious students who continued to ask permission to focus their video project on the subject of drugs, despite her repeated objections. She finally relented — with the caveat that they not resort to cliches. In turn, the students turned in one of the best video projects she’d ever seen: a well-produced, polished video about Americans’ dependence on pharmaceutical drugs that was dense with facts backed up by students’ research. “And I almost killed this project,” she said. “There are vastly creative minds that are capable of doing intensely wonderful things with their learning but often we don’t let that live and breathe. Thankfully I got out of their way and let them do the work they were capable of.”

2.   FOSTER INQUIRY BY SCAFFOLDING CURIOSITY. Teachers always come up to Laufenberg wanting to learn more about her progressive pedagogy — and they invariably ask, “But when do you just tell them things? Don’t you have to just tell them sometimes?”

Laufenberg’s answer: Get them curious enough in the subject to do research on their own. “Kids don’t come to class just burning to know about the War of 1812,” she said. “And you just saying they have to know the facts is not good enough. But here’s your chance to bring them along as a person and get them to learn about it.”

For example, in exploring the subject of American identity with her history students, Laufenberg asked them to come up with words that convey to them the abstract idea of America, or what it means to be American. Many of her students came up with the words “greedy” and “ignorant” — a trend she saw echoed throughout many of her classes during her years teaching at SLA. “I got a clear vision of where my students were,” she said.

She asked her students to find images that epitomized America, then asked them to talk about their ideas with their peers, studying data about immigration, taking the American citizenship test themselves (most received an average score of 3, across the board regardless of age), so they could understand the processes and become personally invested in the subject.

“Rather than saying, ‘We’re going to study immigration,’ I took them through a process where they become interested in it themselves,” she said.

3.  DESIGN ARCHITECTURE FOR PARTICIPATION. “There are so many ways that kids can be active in their learning, beyond the standard call-and-respond business,” Laufenberg said. It may be hard to do with 140 students, but if you consider all the available tools at your disposal, ideas can start to take shape.

Example: Laufenberg asked her students to watch President Obama’s State of the Union address and respond to what they watched and heard. She gave her students the option to either post comments on Twitter (fully public), Facebook (semi-public), Moodle (walled garden) or for low-tech participants, play Bingo with key words the students anticipated they might hear.


Though some goofed around a bit with comments (“Our school is so cool, we’re tweeting the State of the Union”), at the end of the speech, students had posted a total of 438 tweets and 18 pages of Moodle chat. (Interestingly, no one went on Facebook, though she had set up a separate conversation on the school’s Facebook page.)

Laufenberg was not surprised with the high quality of responses she saw from her students. “Does Obama have the power to reform and adjust how the other branches work?” one student tweeted. “He’s not touching on Iran issue… not a good sign,” another posted. “High school dropout laws, rebuilding jobs in our country, and more equipment in schools… me gusta,” wrote yet another.

“I could have them face off against any pundit the next day,” she said. “They understood it. None of it went over their head — they were making meaning of it. They were offering their own opinions, participating in the conversation.”

Laufenberg used every tool she had at her disposal as a framework for her students to build their learning around.

4. TEACHERS TEACH KIDS, NOT SUBJECTS. As most teachers know, when students recognize that teachers are personally invested in their success, they do better, and that affirmation of students’ disposition can help students achieve more. “You can’t ask kids to take risks if they don’t trust that you care about them,” Laufenberg said.

5. PROVIDE OPPORTUNITIES FOR EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING. During the weeks and months that led up to the election, Laufenberg’s students got into the neighborhoods and brought back stories from voters at the polls. Though they didn’t always feel comfortable asking strangers questions, they went ahead with their assignments anyway. “If none of it is ever real to them, if it’s only in books, it lacks interest,” she said. “They want to do real stuff, but we are perpetually underestimating what kids can do.”

6. EMBRACE FAILURE. Laufenberg made a point of defining the difference between “blameworthy” and “praiseworthy” failure. Blameworthy failure is when the student just decided not to participate in a project. But praiseworthy failure is quite different: kids take risks and experiments knowing that they might not get it right the first time.

“No one talks about cancer research as blameworthy failure,” she said. “We don’t expect a five-year-old to be able to shoot free-throws immediately. It’s a process, and we value it in other things, but not when it comes to school. Kids are not coming in as perfect little products or machines — they’re human beings in the process of becoming.”

In the engineering industry, for example, there are “failure festivals” and “failure reports” during which engineers discuss the processes they’ve tried that didn’t work. “We need to have kids do that with their own learning,” she said. “Be self-aware enough to do something with that information.”

7. DON’T BE BORING. “I always told my kids, if I got boring, they should let me know, and if they got boring, I’d let them know,” Laufenberg said. But here’s the twist: kids may actually choose boring because it’s easier, it’s known, it’s quantifiable. “They know what they need to do to get a good score,” she said. When it’s not boring, when the answer is not predictable, that’s when kids are actually challenged more.

8. FOSTER JOY. For a government history teacher, this last directive has been a tall order. But Laufenberg made a point of trying to create a space where her students were valued, where creativity was paramount, and their voices were allowed to shine through.

“It’s incredibly taxing work, but one of the most exciting and meaningful ways to create transformative spaces,” she said.

Above all, what she wants to instill in her students is a sense of self-sufficiency.

“If by the end of the year, they still need me, I haven’t done my job,” she said. “I’m not coming with them to college. They have to be self-driven, independent thinkers.”

Watch Laufenberg’s fascinating TED Talk “How to Learn? From Mistakes.”

How to Trigger Students’ Inquiry Through Projects

25 07 2013

| July 15, 2013 |



By Jane Krauss and Suzie Boss


Excerpt from Thinking Through Project-Based Learning: Guiding Deeper Inquiry, published by Corwin, 2013.


When students engage in quality projects, they develop knowledge, skills, and dispositions that serve them in the moment and in the long term. Unfortunately, not all projects live up to their potential. Sometimes the problem lies in the design process. It’s easy to jump directly into planning the activities students will engage in without addressing important elements that will affect the overall quality of the project.


With more intentional planning, we can design projects that get at the universal themes that have explicit value to our students and to others. We can design projects to be rigorous, so students’ actions mirror the efforts of accomplished adults. They will feel the burn as they learn and build up their fitness for learning challenges to come.


There are several ways to start designing projects. One is to select among learning objectives described in the curriculum and textbooks that guide your teaching and to plan learning experiences based on these. Another is to “back in” to the standards, starting with a compelling idea and then mapping it to objectives to ensure there is a fit with what students are expected to learn. The second method can be more generative, as any overarching and enduring concept is likely to support underlying objectives in the core subject matter and in associated disciplines, too. Either way you begin, the first step is to identify a project-worthy idea.


We have condensed the project design process into six steps. After outlining the steps briefly below, we offer examples that show how one might use these steps to develop a germ of an idea into a project plan that emphasizes inquiry. Read the steps and examples all the way through before digging in to your own plan.


Step 1—Identify Project-worthy Concepts


Ask yourself: What important and enduring concepts are fundamental to the subjects I teach? Identify four or five BIG concepts for each subject.


Step 2—Explore Their Significance and Relevance


Now, think: Why do these topics or concepts matter? What should students remember about this topic in 5 years? For a lifetime? Think beyond school and ask: In what ways are they important and enduring? What is their relevance in different people’s lives? In different parts of the world? Explore each concept, rejecting and adding ideas until you arrive at a short list of meaningful topics.


Step 3—Find Real-Life Contexts


Look back to three or four concepts you explored and think about real-life contexts. Who engages in these topics? Who are the people for whom these topics are central to their work? See if you can list five to seven professions for each concept.


With that done, now think: What are the interdisciplinary connections? In what ways might the topic extend beyond my subject matter? For example, if your subject specialty was math and you imagined an entrepreneur taking a product to market, the central work might involve investment, expense, and profit analyses. The project might also involve supply chains and transportation (geography), writing a prospectus for a venture capitalist (language arts), and designing a marketing campaign (language arts, graphic design, technology).


Step 4—Engage Critical Thinking


As you begin to imagine these topics in the context of a project, ask yourself, what might you ask of students? How might you push past rote learning into investigation, analysis, and synthesis? Consider how you can engage critical thinking in a project by asking students to:


  • Compare and contrast
  • Predict
  • Make a well-founded judgment or informed decision
  • Understand causal relationships (cause and effect)
  • Determine how parts relate to the whole (systems)
  • Identify patterns or trends
  • Examine perspectives and alternate points of view
  • Extrapolate to create something new
  • Evaluate reliability of sources


Step 5—Write a Project Sketch


Now, step back and write a project sketch—or two or three. For each, give an overview of the project. Describe the scenario and the activities students are likely to engage in. Anyone reading it should be able to tell what students will learn by doing the project. The process of writing will help you refine your ideas. There are dozens of project sketches in this book (and all are included in the Project Library in the Appendix). Use them as a guide.


Step 6—Plan the Setup


Three small but useful elements are left, and together with the project sketch, they provide a framework for the project. Write a title, entry event, and driving question for your project.


Project title. A good title goes a long way toward anchoring the project in the minds of your school community. A short and memorable title is best.


Teachers at Birkdale School in New Zealand take their projects seriously. They not only provide them with proper names but also fly a special flag in the school’s entry when a new project begins. You might not need to go this far, but a good title conveys a sense of importance and helps make a project memorable. Let these project titles inspire you.


  • Lest We Forget—A project involving war memorials in New Zealand
  • Mingling at the Renaissance Ball—A social studies investigation that culminates in a celebration of human achievement
  • Lessons from the Gulf—A collection of collaborative projects by schools concerned about U.S. Gulf Coast devastation
  • AD 1095 and All That—Time-traveling students intervene to stop religious wars in medieval Europe.
  • Risk and Reward—Students acting as financial counselors present stock information to clients and advise on investments.
  • Stay or Leave?—Students examine economic factors that influence people’s decisions about where they live.
  • YouVille—Students explore past civilizations to design their own utopias.


Entry event. Plan to start off the project with a “grabber,” a mysterious letter, jarring “news,” a provocative video, or other attention-getting event. As we discussed in Chapter 4, make sure it is novel (to make students alert) and has emotional significance (to make them care). Read these examples and imagine how your students might respond. Then plan an entry event for your project.


  • A newspaper article describes hazards associated with a clinic’s use of poorly refurbished X-ray machines.
  • Distraught warrior king Gilgamesh appears in class and appeals to his “subjects” to help him learn why an enemy’s technological prowess in battle outstrips his own.
  • A process server slaps student “witnesses” with subpoenas, compelling them to testify in an upcoming trial.
  • A letter from an elder describes her desire to capture stories before she and other storytellers are no more.
  • A television news story on “designer” babies kicks off an investigation about the ethical implications of genetic manipulation.
  • A forest owlet from a wildlife rescue center visits school bringing Owl Mail and asks students to investigate hazards to its survival.


Driving question. Kick off your project with a research question students will feel compelled to investigate. Imagine a driving question that leads to more questions, which, in their answering, contribute to greater understanding. Good questions grab student interest (they are provocative, intriguing, or urgent), are open ended (you can’t Google your way to an answer), and connect to key learning goals.


Consider how to write a good question based on these “remodeled” examples (Larmer, 2009):


  • What are archetypes in literature? à To increase relevance, you might ask à How do archetypes inform our culture today?
  • What causes tornadoes? à To add context, you might ask à How can we prepare for a natural disaster in our region?
  • What are the requirements to sustain life? à To add interest, you might ask àHow can we design a biome that is self-sustaining?
  • How can we purify water? à To increase challenge, you might ask à How can we advise a village in the developing world to choose an inexpensive water purification system?


One Last Step


Workshop your project idea, especially at steps 5 and 6. Colleagues, students, parents, and subject matter experts will ask questions that will clarify your thinking and contribute ideas you might not have considered.


For more about the book, check out Suzie Boss’s ISTE presentation.


Why Teachers Should Be Trained Like Actors

25 07 2013

| July 1, 2013 | 23 Comments

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Flickr: World Bank Photo Collection

Teaching is a lot like acting, a high-energy, performance profession that requires a person to act as a role model. But when teachers go through training and professional development, the performance aspect of the job is rarely emphasized or taught. Acknowledging this aspect could be a missed opportunity to restructure ways teachers learn new skills and tactics.

Actors, musicians or acrobats spend hours perfecting their craft because that’s how they improve. Teachers on the other hand, are often asked to identify teaching tools and tactics they’d like to try and to reflect on how those new elements could be integrated into the classroom.

“Knowing what you want to do is a long way from being able to do it,” said Doug Lemov, managing director of Uncommon Schools, a non-profit school management organization and author of Teach Like a Champion and Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better in a recent Future of Education conversation with Steve Hargadon. He started trying to improve teaching by identifying the best practices of exceptional teachers and giving workshops on those “gold nuggets” to less experienced teachers. While many teachers found what they learned helpful, they couldn’t put the new methods into practice.

“Every other performance profession prepares people by practicing and breaking things down into sections,” said Lemov. So he shifted his professional development workshops to emphasize practicing good teaching strategies rather than just thinking about them.

Those first workshops were a learning experience in building on skill sets. Lemov remembers in one of his first groups, teachers pretended to be unruly students in a class taught by another teacher present. The teacher tried to give her lesson as her “students” misbehaved. She was unable to do so; they were throwing too many challenges at her at once. “What just happened there is she practiced failure,” Lemov said. “She just got better at losing control of the classroom.”

At this point he realized that, like learning a new piece of music or the lines to a play, the challenges of the classroom had to be broken down into component parts. In order for the teacher to practice succeeding, to feel the satisfaction of a well-given lesson to a controlled classroom, she needed to first practice controlling simple behaviors. Then gradually, the pretend students added in new types of challenging behaviors, adding layers of complexity so she could improve at a manageable pace.

“To really learn something teachers and students have to embrace the normalcy of falling down and picking yourself back up.”

“So often we ask people to do things that are outside their realm of possibility,” Lemov said. That’s a disservice to the learner because it gives the impression that the difficult task is insurmountable when in fact it was thrust on the person too quickly. Lemov gave the example of teaching his son to play baseball and allowing his son to try the batting cage after he’d just barely learned to connect with a slow pitch. His son changed his practiced swing to randomly connect with the ball, undercutting all his previous learning. The rate of failure in the batting cage was too high for his experience and time practicing.

That’s not to say that failure is bad. In fact, Lemov councils that failure needs to be a much more accepted part of the teaching practice. “You can’t learn if you are afraid to fail,” Lemov said. “To really learn something teachers and students have to embrace the normalcy of falling down and picking yourself back up. But it needs to happen in a manageable way.”

In the workshops that Lemov now runs he encourages teachers who are “practicing” their craft to take the suggestions offered in real time and immediately try to use them. So often in teaching feedback is delayed or must be ignored in the moment for the good of the whole group. Lemov champions a space where teachers can immediately shift course and practice the difference.

But it’s not easy to get teachers to give up old ways. It’s hard to tell an earnest educator who has prepared for his work primarily through reflection that he should practice. “Getting them to feel comfortable and safe in that dynamic is a big part of what has to happen for it to be effective,” Lemov said. It has to be safe to do something risky, not a culture supported in many schools.

Through his work Lemov has observed that there is a correlation between how well a teacher gives instruction to students and the quality of the academic content. Giving clear instructions is only one of many skills a teacher needs, but Lemov found that if a teacher had mastered those external elements of the teaching craft, she was also more successful on the academic side because she thought about discussion in the same clear, measured way.

“I do think there’s a strange correlation between intentionality about seemingly little things on the behavioral-cultural side and big educational ideas,” Lemov said. A teacher who pays enough attention to make instructions clear is probably also paying close attention to how academic discussions and projects are structured.

But the most important thing is to realize that by practicing good teaching methods, a teacher can begin to embody good habits and feel successful at once difficult classroom tasks. Ultimately, professional development should make teachers feel that they can perform their jobs better, not merely know cerebrally what they should do differently.

Helping Kids Who Struggle With Executive Functions

24 07 2013

Helping Kids Who Struggle With Executive Functions

Learning specialists discuss how to get organized

Rachel Ehmke

Writer Child Mind Institute

The first time you hear that your 7-year-old son is weak in “executive functions” it sounds like a joke. No kidding—that’s why he’s a first-grader, not a CEO. But executive functions are the essential self-regulating skills that we all use every day to accomplish just about everything. They help us plan, organize, make decisions, shift between situations or thoughts, control our emotions and impulsivity, and learn from past mistakes. Kids rely on their executive functions for everything from taking a shower to packing a backpack and picking priorities.

Children who have poor executive functioning, including many with ADHD, are more disorganized than other kids. They might take an extraordinarily long time to get dressed or become overwhelmed while doing simple chores around the house. Schoolwork can become a nightmare because they regularly loose papers or start weeklong assignments the night before they are due.

Learning specialists have devised ways to bolster the organizational skills that don’t come naturally a child with poor executive functioning. They teach a mix of specific strategies and alternative learning styles that compliment or enhance a child’s particular abilities. Here are some of the tools they teach kids—and parents—to help them tackle school work as well as other responsibilities that take organization and follow-through.


The steps necessary for completing a task often aren’t obvious to kids with executive dysfunction, and defining them clearly ahead of time makes a task less daunting and more achievable. Following a checklist of steps also minimizes the mental and emotional strain many kids with executive dysfunction experience while trying to make decisions. Ruth Lee, MEd, an educational therapist at the Child Mind Institute, explains, “Often these kids will get so wrapped up in the decision-making process that they never even start the task. Or, if they do begin, they’re constantly starting and restarting because they’ve thought of a better way to do it. In the end they’re exhausted when the time comes to actually follow though.” With a checklist, kids can focus their mental energy on the task at hand.

You can make a checklist for nearly anything, Lee notes, including how to get out of the house on time each morning—often a daily struggle for kids with executive dysfunction. Some parents say posting a checklist of the morning routine can be a sanity saver: make your bed, brush your teeth, get dressed, have breakfast, grab your lunch, get your backpack. Lee also recommends completing as many of the morning tasks as possible the night before. Lunches can be made ahead of time, clothes can be laid out, and backpacks can be packed and waiting by the door. It takes a little extra planning, she adds, but doing the work ahead of time can prevents a lot of drama the next day.

Set Time Limits

When making a checklist, many educational therapists also recommend assigning a time limit for each step, particularly if it is a bigger, longer-term project. Matt Cruger, PhD, Director of the Child Mind Institute Learning and Development Center, likes to practice breaking down different kinds of homework assignments with kids to get them used to the steps required—and how long they might take. He describes recently working with a fifth grader who could think of only two steps required to complete a book report—writing the report and then turning it in. The time involved in reading the book slipped his mind.

Use That Planner

Educational specialists also highlight the cardinal importance of using a planner. Most schools require students to use a planner these days, but they often don’t teach children how to use them, and it won’t be obvious to a child who is overwhelmed by—or uninterested in—organization and planning. This is unfortunate because kids who struggle with executive functioning have poor working memory, which means it is hard for them to remember things like homework assignments. And working memory issues tend to snowball. Dr. Cruger explains, “Kids don’t remember that they won’t remember their homework if they don’t write it down. It doesn’t matter how many times they forget. Once a frustrated father told me, ‘It’s like he has this delusion that he’ll remember it!'” As a backup to planners, many schools are also using software platforms like eChalk to create webpages teachers use to post homework assignments and handouts—giving kids with executive dysfunction one less thing to worry about.

Spell out the Rationale

While a child is learning new skills, it is essential that he understand the rationale behind them, or things like planning might feel like a waste of time or needless energy drain. Kids with poor organizational skills often feel pressured by their time commitments and responsibilities, and can be very averse to delay. “It’s almost like they’re making neuroeconomical decisions,” Dr. Cruger says. “They’re constantly weighing things to see if it’s worth their effort, and planning can feel like a waste of time if you don’t understand the rationale behind it.” Older kids are particularly resistant, because they’re more stuck in their ways. “They’ll say, ‘This is what works for me,’ even if their method really isn’t working,” says Dr. Cruger. Explaining the rationale behind a particular strategy makes a child much more likely to commit to doing it.

Explore Different Ways of Learning

Because everyone learns differently, educational specialists like Mara Ravitz, MA, one of the founders of the learning company Smarten Up, advocate using a variety of strategies to help kids with executive dysfunction understand—and remember—important concepts. Using graphic organizers as a reference for visual learners is one such example. Students learning how to write a paragraph might follow the hamburger paragraph model, a diagramed drawing of a hamburger in which each sandwich component matches a part of a paragraph—the top bun is the thesis, the three supporting sentences are the lettuce, tomato, and patty, and the bottom bun is the conclusion sentence. Some versions of the hamburger paragraph act as a visual aide while others double as forms that a child can fill in.

Other kids remember things better if there is a motion supporting it, like counting on your fingers, which is good for visual and tactile learners. Younger children benefit from self-talking to reduce anxiety and Social Stories, which are narratives about a child successfully performing a certain task or learning a particular skill. Social Stories are told from a child’s first-person perspective and are similar to self-talk, but they can also double as a checklist because they break tasks into clear steps and can be referred to later.

As kids get older and are expected to memorize a lot of dry factual information, Ravitz recommends mnemonic devices as a way to structure information in a more memorable way. But with all of the different learning strategies out there, Dr. Cruger stresses the importance of not overwhelming kids. Ideally the educational specialist should be working with your child on one new skill at a time, and spending at least two weeks practicing before evaluating how effective or ineffective it is and moving on to anything new.

Establish a Routine

This is particularly important for older kids, who typically struggle more to get started with their homework. Educational specialists recommend starting homework at the same time every day. Expect some resistance from older kids, who often prefer to wait until they feel like doing their work. Dr. Cruger strongly advises against waiting to start homework. “Realistically, the desire to start homework probably isn’t going to come. A kid who is waiting for inspiration to strike will still be forced to start his homework eventually, but it will probably be at 11 o’clock. That’s clearly a bad work model.” Ideally, kids should come home, unpack their bag, have a snack, and then get started. Homework is best done in a quiet, well-lit space fully stocked with paper and pencils because a search for supplies can quickly derail homework time. Any space with minimal distractions is good. Some families find doing homework on the kitchen table works best for their child, particularly if a parent is nearby to supervise and answer questions.

Use Rewards

For younger kids, Ravitz recommends putting a reward system in place. “Younger kids need external motivators to highlight the value of these new strategies. Something like a star chart, where kids see the connection between practicing their skills and working towards a reward, works very well.” Besides, Ravitz notes, “It’s also a good way to communicate to kids that their parents and their teacher also value this skill.” If you’re using a reward chart, hanging it in the designated homework area can be a good incentive. For older kids who aren’t as motivated by things like rewards, parents should still be encouraging. Ravitz recommends parents checking in with older kids. “Ask how things are going or offer help. Tell them you appreciate all the hard work they’re doing. School is really hard for a lot of kids—it shouldn’t be a given that learning these things is easy.”

Developing new strategies for learning isn’t easy either. Initially, it can put kids who are already self-conscious even further outside their comfort zone, but it’s worth the effort. We use our organizational skills every day in a million ways, and they are essential to our success in school and later as adults. They even give us more time to play videogames.

Published: August 20, 2012

The Complete List of 66 Teacher Discounts

23 07 2013
Teacher discounts don’t often receive the same hype and attention as those for students. But be confident, oft-neglected educators of the world — businesses haven’t forgotten you.
Along with classroom supplies and other learned goodies like books, numerous teacher discounts are offered nationwide, running the gamut from laptops and Photoshop to museum entry and wedding favors. Yes, wedding favors.
While eligibility changes based on where you purchase, most offers are redeemable by kindergarten teachers and college professors alike. Also remember seasonal promos, particularly back-to-school sales and Teacher Appreciation Week in early May. Merchants without regular promotions often roll out limited-time offers.
To add much-needed oomph to your spending, Gift Card Granny compiled a top-notch list of the 66 most lucrative year-round discounts for teachers. Keep in mind, however, that policies vary greatly by location. Some give a different percentage off, others shift education discounts over time, still others simply don’t honor deals. Call ahead before making a purchase to avoid frustration.
Quick links: Arts & Crafts | Books | Clothing | Electronics | Food | Furniture | Gifts | Hotels | Museums


  1. The Container Store The organizational aficionados at The Container Store provide a 15 percent discount on all items through the Organized Teacher Program. Register online for a free discount card to use for in-store and online purchases. If you visit a store, be sure to have your school ID.
  2. Office Depot The free Office Depot Star Teacher Program grants privileged educators (aka those who sign up) 10-percent back in rewards points on ink, toner and paper purchases. You also get 15-percent of the price of all copy and print orders placed online or at a brick-and-mortar location.
  3. Fedex Office Just for being a schoolmarm, the handy print mavens at Fedex Office give you 15-percent off nearly all products, including brochures, business cards and photos. Call ahead to be sure your intended purchase qualifies for the discount. Nothing like being left high and dry when grades are on the line.
  4. Staples Register for the Staples Teacher Rewards Program to garner 10-percent back in rewards points. The program covers a slew of products, from ink and paper to teaching and art supplies.
  5. Ben Franklin Crafts Tuesday is the new Friday at Ben Franklin crafts, an online craft store with kiosks in supermarkets and local pharmacies across the nation. Shop on Tuesday and take 10-percent off all purchases. Be sure to have you school ID on hand.
  6. Joann Fabric The free Teacher Rewards Discount Card entitles educators to 15-percent off all purchases. Home schoolers are also eligible for the card and new members receive a 20-percent off bonus for signing up.
  7. Hancock Fabric Flash your valid school ID at most Hancock Fabric retail locations and be rewarded with a discount of 15 percent on all purchases.
  8. Michael’s Receive 15% off your entire purchase every day. See a store associate for details as some exclusions may apply.
  9. Discount School Supply Discount School Supply doesn’t run a rewards program, but certain purchases are eligible for a teacher discount if you call ahead or ask before finishing an order. The online store trades in a wide variety of supplies, crafts and games for early childhood educators.
  10. A.C. Moore The A.C. Moore Teacher Discount Program grants educators a discount card for in-store purchases, including home schoolers. Mail a copy showing proof of your status to A.C. Moore to sign up. For a mailing address and acceptable forms of ID, visit the A.C. Moore FAQs page under “Discounts.”
  11. Teachers are human, too, meaning just like every human they were born on a particular day. Join and receive one free educational DVD on your birthday. The company specializes in videos for older students, so only teachers of grades 6-12 can apply.
    Save more on crafts and office supplies with discount gift cards for Michael’s, Joann Fabric, Staples, Office Depot and A.C. Moore.


  1. Barnes & Noble Through the B&N Educator Program teachers can save 20-percent off the publisher’s list price on purchases for classroom use. During Educator Appreciation Days recieve discounts up to 25-percent.
  2. Half Price Books Sign up for a Half Price Books’ Teacher and Librarian card and be rewarded with discounts of 10-percent year-round. Visit any Half Price Books location and show your school ID for the free card. As per usual, the card is only valid for in-store purchases.
  3. ShopPBS ShopPBS is one of the few book and media outlets to offer an online discount to teachers. Register for the PBS Teachers Program to take 10-percent off your first purchase through the store.
  4. Books-A-Million Certain brick-and-mortar locations grant teachers a 20-percent discount on most purchases just for asking. Call ahead to be sure your local store honors the discount and, if they don’t, see if they offer a compromise.
  5. Book Warehouse The perks of flashing that school ID aren’t lost at Book Warehouse. Show your valid school-issued card for a 15-percent discount on most in-store purchases.
  6. Churchill’s Photography Teachers are lovers, too, and just as most lovers do, they strive to get married. They especially strive to save money doing so. Teachers in Florida will receive 15-percent off wedding packages from the Palm Beach studio Churchill’s Photography. All other photo services earn a 10-percent discount.
    Save more on books with discount gift cards for Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million.


  1. Ann Taylor Loft Fashion forward educators are rewarded for their posh style through the Loft Loves Teachers program. Register to get 15-percent off all in-store purchases, plus an introductory discount for new members.
  2. The Limited Show a school ID or valid pay stub when you shop at any The Limited location and snag 15-percent off your entire order. The offer is good for all items on the racks, walls or tables. In other words, everything.
  3. Aerosoles Are you a member of the National Education Association? If so, show proof of your membership at any Aerosoles store and take 15-percent off any purchase from the apparel and footwear mavens. Aerosoles has locations in 16 states on both coasts and in between.
  4. New York and Co. New York and Co. grants any educator with a valid school ID 15-percent off every purchase at participating locations, keyword participating. Call ahead to be sure your favorite store honors the offer.
  5. J. Crew Visit the local J. Crew, flash your school ID, and be rewarded with 15-percent off designer duds from the dapper dudes.
  6. Banana Republic Banana Republic offers a 10-percent off deal to any teacher with a valid school ID. Another caveat fiend, it’s only good at participating locations. Call before you shop.
    Save more on clothing with discount gift cards for Loft, The Limited, J. Crew, Banana Republic and New York & Co..


  1. Apple Store The House of Jobs is surprisingly generous to teachers, offering 5-percent off all in-store purchases with proof of employments as an educator. This includes librarians, home schoolers and university profs.
  2. Bose The Bose offer is primo, particularly for those in need of sonic stimulation. Variable discounts are available on all music systems and accessories. Call the Customer Focused Development Team at 1-800-353-4027 for pricing and to place an order.
  3. Dell Buy direct from the Dell online store and get 2- to 4-percent off the final price of any desktop or laptop, as well as software a peripherals. Call Customer Service at 1-800-999-3355 before paying to apply the discount.
  4. Cell Phone Companies (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint) This discount is a tad tricky to redeem but can save loads on a personal cell phone bill, sometimes up to 20 percent a month. Visit your provider’s business or discount portal and input your .edu e-mail address to check if your institution is registered. Example: Search “Verizon business discount” in a search engine and click on the first result to register or check an existing discount.
  5. Adobe Shop direct from the Adobe Education Store and receive discounts on select software, including bundles and suites. Adobe requires proof of employment as an educator before applying the discount.
  6. HP Sign up for the HP Academy program to receive exclusive discounts and get a one-time “welcome” coupon for first-time members.
  7. Lenovo Teachers earn 5-percent off any purchase from the computer connoisseurs at Lenovo simply for being, well, themselves. Call Customer Service at 1-866-968-4465 to apply the discount.
  8. Sony Sony keeps a well-trained cornea on teachers through its aptly-named Eye on Education Program. Discounts on projectors and flat-panel displays vary when you register and buy through the program portal, but most lie in the 5- to 10- percent off range.
  9. Software Express The online outlet Software Express grants discounts of up to 75 percent on a host of programs, including Adobe, McAfee and Symantec. Submit copies of your valid school ID and state driver’s license to Customer Service before completing your order.
  10. Academic Superstore Academic Superstore is another online software outlet that sells a slew of products for up to 85-percent off. Discounts are available year-round with proof of employment as a teacher.
  11. Gradware Gradware is the final in a gang of three software repositories and — surprise, surprise — its offer is similar to its brethren. Send Customer Service a copy of your valid school ID to be eligible for a variety of discounts.
    Save more on electronics with discount gift cards for Apple Store, Sony Style and Dell.


  1. Pizza Hut Feed your pizza monster for cheap when you dine at any Pizza Hut location. Show your school ID for discounts of 10- to 20-percent off any meal.
  2. Starbucks Deals at the world’s most iconic coffee shop vary widely by location and the baristas working. However, they’ve been known to give discounts on request. Build a healthy rapport to up your chances.
  3. Charm City Cakes The darlings of Food Network’s “Ace of Cakes” program don’t advertise a particular discount, but they’ve been known to give educators a price break. The bakery’s creations are available to clients within a 4-hour driving distance of downtown Baltimore.
    Save more on food with discount gift cards for Pizza Hut and Starbucks.


  1. Room Store Furniture Let your school ID loose for 10-percent off all furniture and accessory purchases at all Room Store Furniture retail locations. The business has showrooms in eight states, primarily strewn across the southeast.
  2. Cost Plus World Market Educators in San Francisco and Oakland can snag a 10-percent discount year-round on all items. Other locations may honor the award, but give them a ring to be sure or do some gentle convincing.


  1. Life’s Little Favors Remember the aforementioned wedding favors? Well, buy to your hearts content from the online favor boutique and take 10-percent off with a valid school ID. Call Customer Service at 1-800-406-9985 beforehand for verification instructions.


  1. Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel Teachers are eligible for a variety of discounted rates at the Swan and Dolphin hotel, located securely in the center of Walt Disney World in Orlando. Availability also varies based on season and demand. Mention you’re an educator when booking.
  2. Marriott Hotels Marriott grants teachers a discount at a slew of hotels across the nation. Whether you book on-line or in-person, show your school ID at check-in to receive the special rate. Rules on this discount are a bit vague — they mention government employees, which would imply only public school employees — but most hotel employees don’t bite. Feel free to ask.
  3. Regal Cinemas Regal Cinemas regularly have discount tickets for teachers (and students), good for all show times. Call or visit beforehand, as not every location honors the discount or offers the same price. Like there’s time for a film with all those papers piling up, anyway. Guess that’s why summer exists.
  4. Sea World Orlando Register for the Teacher Study Passes program, an exclusive for K-12 teachers in Florida, and get unlimited free admission. Bring a copy of your Florida teaching certificate, a current pay stub and photo ID to the Sea World Orlando front gate to obtain a new pass or renew an old one.
  5. National Park Service Show a valid school ID at a slew of National Park Service visitor centers across the nation and receive 15-percent off any purchase. The discount doesn’t apply to park entry fees, camping fees or Smoky the Bear petting zoo fees.
  6. Kennedy Space Center Florida treats its teachers well and occasionally lets folks from Georgia in on the fun. Registered educators from both states are eligible for a free, full-fledged Educator Study Pass. Show a valid teaching certificate and recent pay stub to any ticket agent for an annual pass.
  7. Origins Game Fair Plan on visiting the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio from June 22 to 26 this year? Sneak ticket agents a peek of your school ID or teaching certification for a free convention badge, good for one day of entry.
  8. Forever Young MedSpa Banish evil skin to dermal limbo at Forever Young MedSpa in Cooper City, Fla. All Florida-based teachers get 20-percent off any service, including laser hair removal, botox injections and other non-invasive skincare services.
  9. Gatorland Yep, Florida again. Teachers with a valid school ID snag free admission from September to October at the 110-acre alligator farm in Orlando.
    Save more on lodging with discounted hotel gift cards.


  1. Abbe Museum in Maine Teachers with a valid school ID for grades K-12 receive 10-percent off books from the gift shop at this museum dedicated to Wabanaki Native Americans. The offer is good at both the Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park locations.
  2. Art Institute of Chicago Teachers at any level are entitled to free admission with a valid school ID. The Institute’s extensive museum is at 111 S. Michigan Ave. in downtown Chicago.
  3. Boston Children’s Museum Despite the name, the Boston Children’s Museum isn’t just for kiddos. See for yourself for free with a valid school ID, available year-round. The museum is at 308 Congress St., just across from the Children’s Wharf Park.
  4. Dallas Museum of Art Teachers are eligible for discounted single-day tickets, as well as annual memberships by calling the Members Services Desk at 214-922-1247. Inform them of your status for rates and purchasing info. The museum is at 1717 N. Harwood in downtown Dallas.
  5. The Field Museum of Chicago Educators need only present a valid school ID for free admission at The Field Museum in Chicago, dedicated to all things historic and otherwise dug up. The museum is located at 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, only steps from Lake Michigan.
  6. Florida Aquarium All Florida teachers receive one free ticket with proof of employment, including a current payroll code and pay stub. The aquarium is at 701 Channelside Drive in the Channel District of Tampa Bay.
  7. Gulf Breeze Zoo in Florida Show your school ID at the ticket office to garner one free admission. Rules don’t specify if the offer is available to all teachers or only those from Florida, so call beforehand if planning a vacation visit. The zoo is located in Pensacola at 5701 Gulf Breeze Parkway.
  8. Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Missouri Teachers enjoy a free visit at the birthplace of Missouri’s wittiest state treasure when visiting with a school group of 20 or more. The museum is at 120 N. Main in Hannibal.
  9. Mote Aquarium in Florida Teachers will receive one free ticket with any recent pay stub. Present your stub at the admissions desk before purchasing a pass. The aquarium is perched on a lush peninsula at 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway in Sarasota.
  10. Museum of Science, Boston Teachers of grades K-12 can register for the free Teacher Partner Program at the Museum of Science to receive a slew of exclusive benefits, including free individual exhibit passes, discounted annual memberships, and 10-percent off at the Museum Store. The museum is located at 1 Science Park just off Monsignor O’Brien Highway.
  11. 60. New England Aquarium Current teachers get 10-percent off purchases at the gift shop and a 10-percent discount on family memberships with a valid school ID. The aquarium is at 1 Central Wharf in Boston.
  12. Orlando Museum of Art Florida educators can receive a discounted annual pass by contacting the museum box office at 407-896-4231. The museum is at 2416 N. Mills Ave. in Orlando, near Lake Estelle.
  13. John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art Present a valid school ID at the box office to snag a discounted day pass at the estate-turned-gallery in Sarasota, Fla. The museum, named for John Ringling of Ringling Bros. circus fame, is located at 5401 Bay Shore Road.
  14. Science Museum of Minnesota Minnesota teachers can apply for a $60 annual household membership, $35 off the normal price and good for all family members. Present a valid school ID and current pay stub at the box office when purchasing. The museum is at 120 W. Kellogg Blvd. in St. Paul.
  15. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago Teachers are eligible for one free general admission ticket with a valid school ID. Present ID before purchasing at any box office window. The aquarium is at 1200 S. Lake Shore Drive in the same complex at The Filed Museum.
  16. South Florida Museum Teachers will garner free admission with a valid school ID at this regionally-flavored marine life and history museum. The building is at 201 W. 10th St. in Bradenton, under 50 miles from Tampa.
  17. The Tech Museum in California All California teachers can earn a free annual membership with a current California teaching license. Present a copy at the box office before purchasing. The home of “Body Worlds 2” and numerous Silicon Valley-inspired exhibits is at 201 Market St. in San Jose.

This Classroom Is The Doorway To Adventure!

19 07 2013

Hats off Ms. Poppe, we could only dream of having a teacher like you.   Posted on September 26, 2012 at  3:44pm EDT


Let’s begin our journey.

2. Doctor Who – The TARDIS


Doctor Who - The TARDISView this image ›

It’s bigger on the inside.

3. Harry Potter – Platform 9 3/4


Harry Potter - Platform 9 3/4View this image ›

Best to approach it at a run.

4. The Chronicles of Naria – The Wardrobe


The Chronicles of Naria - The WardrobeView this image ›

Pretty sure you’ll find a half James McAvoy, half faun behind that door.

5. The Twilight Zone


The Twilight ZoneView this image ›

“Perhaps, for all of us, somewhere is a hidden door…into the Twilight Zone.”

6. Portal


PortalView this image ›

Thanks Aperture Industries for creating a portal…to the other side of the room. I hope this is the entrance to the bathroom.

7. Alice In Wonderland


Alice In WonderlandView this image ›

That’s the fanciest looking rabbit hole we’ve ever seen.

Introducing Mr. X The Math Magician

18 07 2013

PrintMr. X, The Math Magician, is now booking school family math nights for the Fall and Winter. Bob Bishop is internationally known as America’s Math Magician. He visits many school each year to share the wonder of math. He has traveled from Boston to Los Angeles to Taiwan amazing and motivating teachers and students.

What Makes a Gifted Student?

12 07 2013

Posted by on Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Gifted Child

Parents and grandparents often look for signs  that their children and grandchildren are gifted. After all, who doesn’t like to  brag about their children? When moving to our new two story home when my twins  were 19 months old, I was extremely worried about the stairs.  I was  frightened out of my mind when they insisted on walk-crawling up the stairs, but  was delighted when they understood right away how to slide back down on their  stomachs. I decided that my twin boys must be advanced!

Unfortunately, walking up the stairs is not a sign of giftedness for my children, as the normal time for a child to walk up stairs  is 18  months. However, one of the boys walked on tiptoes at 20 months which  qualifies him to possibly be advanced. Too bad that advancedness does not  apply to his  getting his own blankie from another room or getting into the bathtub without  incident.

Consider the following parental and grandparental claims:

“Andrew is going to be gifted,” says his father, as three year old Andrew  sings along with the radio in tune, while clapping to the beat.

“Susie is gifted,” her mother states as four year old Susie recites her  alphabet, lists numbers one to thirty, and then does a somersault.

“Tommy is extremely gifted,” beams his grandmother as seven year old Tommy  finishes a Lego castle containing 300 pieces.

“Andrea is off the charts in giftedness,” says her father confidently, as ten  year old Andrea plays Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” from memory on the  piano.

Which of the above children might actually be considered gifted? You may be  surprised that it is Andrew, the three year old.  Singing in pitch and  clapping along to the beat at an early age is a sign of giftedness.  While  the other scenarios are impressive to some, they are not indicative of an  advanced child.

What is Giftedness?

The technical definition of gifted is “having  great natural ability“, but there is much more to it than that. It is more  difficult to define than one would imagine. The main idea behind giftedness is  that the child leads  the direction of what they want to experience, rather than someone else.

The main idea behind giftedness is that the child leads the  direction of what they want to experience, rather than someone  else.

If at 20 months my tiptoe walking son had been coached, coaxed, and led to  walk that way by myself or my husband it would not necessarily be a sign of  giftedness because he could do it. His doing it on his own out of natural  curiosity or ability is what would make him gifted.

“Gifted” May Not Mean What You Think It Means

Many parents and even teachers equate giftedness with good grades, high test  scores, and better behavior than other students. While this may be a sign of  giftedness, these parameters could leave many gifted students unidentified.

Students who are unruly, have attention issues, lacks good grades, or have no  interest in completing homework or participating are not generally thought of as  being gifted over others who behave the opposite. Chew on this: when Albert  Einstein was a young boy, he was thought to be dumb and was set apart from  other students.

While high scores and good grades can be an indicator of giftedness, there is  more to earning that label. While many test students for good memory skills or  the ability to analyze data, children also need to be creative  and proactive in their interests.

What Skills Do Gifted Students Possess?

Being gifted means a student has certain qualities and skills that  enable them to think on their own without help. Many people have good memory,  the ability to interpret ideas and data, are creative, are practical, and  interested in many things, but this does not make them gifted alone.

Students with higher level functions will be able to create or think of  something they want to do, analyze how to go about it, have the understanding of  what they need to be successful, and then pursue it. They can understand what  needs to be fixed or changed in order for their idea to work.

While the ideas presented above make for obvious giftedness, some students  are higher in some levels than others. For instance, my sixteen year old son is  a remarkable verbal wordsmith. Since he was a toddler he has spoken very well  and has an extensive vocabulary.  He and I would hold real conversations  about various ideas when he was just in Kindergarten.

While he has amazing verbal ability, he does not know how to write it down.  He has great ideas, knows what he wants to do, what the outcome should be, the  problems that could arise and how to fix them. The next step to implement his  ideas is where he falters. He can tell me his whole plan, then will sit down at  the computer and stare. This does not make him any less gifted, it just shows  that not all gifted people have the same talents and skill levels as others.

How Does One Become Gifted?

 Contrary to popular belief, being gifted is not always luck of  the draw.

Genetics do play a large part in being gifted, definitely. It has been  thought that the brain of a gifted person can actually process information  faster. However, one’s surroundings are equally important. Nature and nurture are at work as some traits are genetic and others are learned.

It is important for parents and teachers to actively participate in a child’s  life in order to see what they are interested in. Whether or not the parents  themselves are considered gifted, the environment a child grows up in can  enhance or develop their abilities.

A personal example would be that my mother’s side of the family is very  musical. There are a few band directors and music majors, and everyone on the  immediate side played a musical instrument at one time.

With all these musical genes, it would stand to reason I would have an  affinity for music, too.  It turns out I did, but with the aid of my mother  to cultivate it. If my mother had not bought me that little metal fife when I  was in 4th grade, I may never have been the flute player I am today.

Even more importantly, had she not dug out her old, dusty clarinet a few  years later, I may never have been inspired to get a degree in music.   Being gifted in music, it is likely that I would have desired to seek it  out for myself, but the environment in which I lived aided me greatly.

Neurology of the Gifted

The brain is a complex organ full of nerves, neurons, and the chemicals that  allow us to communicate, which are called neurotransmitters. The  neurotransmitters move along an intricate highway of branches called dendrites.  The dendrites seek other neurons at points in the brain called synapses. Having  more branches and points in the brain allow us to have a better capabilities to  learn.

The more the brain is used, the more neurons are activated, which makes more  dendrites and helps the brain to function at an even higher level. Gifted  students are thought to have more compact areas of synapses where their talent  lies. Being in the right environment to stimulate the neurons is also a large  part of the brain being able to develop the more complex root-system those that  are in gifted minds.

Levels Can Vary

Knowing what skills are involved is helpful, but recognizing giftedness can  sometimes be difficult. As evidenced by my excitement over my twins walking up  the stairs, we can sometimes jump the giftedness gun as the wonderful thing the  child did is actually developmentally on time. The following is a list of  scenarios that are a sign of giftedness.

  • Students that can weave an original and complex story with rich characters  and an interesting plot.
  • A child that can draw a picture to scale or with the appropriate  dimensions.
  • A student that makes up games. Games require analytical skills, trial and  error, and hypothesizing, which are all advanced skills.
  • Using  a toy differently than it was made for.
  • Drawing a picture or telling a story accurately from memory.
  • Singing on pitch and clapping to the beat of music.
  • Speaking early with good grasp of grammar
  • Advanced  vocabulary

For a longer list of signs, click here for an article on Gifted Kids.

Giftedness Can Lead to Frustration

Often, being gifted while sounding positive and remarkable can be  frustrating.  If a student is lacking in creativity, analytical, or  practical skills, it can hurt the area in which they excel. A highly creative  person unable to apply know-how to complete his task will feel like a failure. A  person with high analytical skills but nothing to apply them to will feel  unfulfilled.

A highly creative person unable to apply know-how to complete his task will  feel like a failure.

Also, a gifted person with no outlet can become depressed,  angry, and feel like they have failed.  Because they do not know why these  emotions are erupting, they may be embarrassed that they cannot help themselves  and lash out or isolate themselves.

Because of their gifts or talents, many children also feel ostracized from  other peers. They can be seen as “different” and are treated as such. Non-gifted  students may envy their gifted classmates and treat them negatively, too.

It is important as parents and teachers to help develop skills in their  children and students, gifted or not, at an early age. With my three year old  twins, I gleefully turn the tables on them and ask them “Why?” all the time.  When one yells: “I don’t wanna take a bath!” I ask: “Why not?” They will usually  say: “Because!” to which I ask: “Because why?”

Questioning leads to their analyzing the problem, verbalizing it to me, and  helps me understand their issue. Then I can allay their fears, assert my  parental momliness, or redirect their attention to something else. Anything to  get those little muddy, sandy, and markered up little bodies in the bathtub.

How to Help Develop the Skills

It is easy to tell someone what they need to do to help their children’s  minds expand and grow; it is another thing to try to implement it. It is  important to ask your child many questions. Questions that have a more complex  answer than “yes” or “no”. If the children are watching a television program,  rather than watch it quietly with them, pause it and ask what is going on in the  story. Even a three year old can tell you “Elmo lost Blanket down Oscar’s can  and needs go find it.”

When taking younger children to a grocery store, ask questions about the food  you are buying. Why are carrots better for you than cookies? Where do the  vegetables come from? What animals eat bananas? Older children can be asked to  determine the better buy for different items. Ask them to compare one brand’s  ingredients over another.

Whether at home, in a classroom, or anywhere you are with students and  children, there is always something you can ask to get them thinking  analytically. Prompting their memory and asking them to make up ideas will help  build their skills. When playing outside, begin a game of pretend, and let  them use their imagination.

The Gender Issue

This is the “Teacher’s Beware” section. While it may not apply to you and  your classroom, it has been researched and shown that teachers can be biased.  While this may not be news, because we all have our biases, teachers need to be  cognizant if theirs are showing.

Teachers can often fall into the gender  trap when it comes to gifted students. Boys are thought to be more logical,  while girls are more creative. Gifted boys can be domineering, while gifted  girls can be shy.  Gifted girls try to downplay their attributes, while  gifted boys are more forceful about theirs.

This is not an absolute, but when thinking of your own classroom, do you  categorize your students in this way? If not, do you categorize them in other  ways?

Female teachers have been noted to have a tendency to brush off girls, not  boys, who are more analytical. Male teachers find girls to be emotional but  still react more favorably than female teachers. Gifted students are not always  treated fairly in the classroom. Whether consciously or subconsciously, it shows  a disparity between the sexes that can be very obvious. The same is said for  those who are not considered gifted, are teachers treated them differently,  too?

We all want our students to succeed, but it is possible that our own  prejudices can be more harmful than helpful to students. While the above  mentions that gifted girls are often not treated the same by their female  teachers, sometimes the opposite can be true. Sometimes teachers can favor their  own gender over others.

Rethink Your Idea of What a Gifted Student Looks Like

When asked to imagine a gifted student, we all have a different idea of what  he or she looks like. I immediately think of a seven year old piano prodigy,  while someone else might think of a great artist. Most likely we equate  giftedness with excellent grades and behavior, but those students are actually  pretty rare.

Gifted students come in all sizes, colors, ages, and with various talents.  They also have different attitudes, home environments, and socioeconomic  status. Do not dismiss Cindy because she cannot sit still, and do not  automatically include Shawn because he always gets A’s on his math test.

We must not forget as teachers to look for gifts in all the students and  cultivate the skills they may possess.

Image  source


Carrie Wible is an educator, writer, musician, and mother living in Northeast  Ohio. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music from Kent State University, a  teaching certificate in grades 1-8 from Youngstown State University and a  Masters in Teaching and Learning with Technology from Ashford University. Carrie  has been teaching music lessons and has taught in the classroom for a combined  total of 25 years.

Cited From:

8 Characteristics Of A Great Teacher

7 07 2013


What makes a teacher strong?

What differentiates the best from the rest? There’s no shortage of bodies (some dramatically misguided) attempting to solve this riddle.  The answers are nebulous at best. Below is a list of traits, some of which may be familiar but many of which will never show up on any sort of performance review.  Check them out and see what you think.

1. They Demonstrate Confidence

Confidence while teaching can mean any number of things, it can range from having confidence in your knowledge of the material being learned to having confidence that your teaching acumen is second to none. Though these two (and many other) “confidences” are important the most critical confidence a teacher can have is much more general, and tougher to describe than that.

It’s the confidence that you know you’re in the right spot doing what you want to be doing and that no matter what transpires, having that time to spend with those young learners is going to be beneficial both for them and for yourself.  It’s clear to students when teachers exude this feeling. Working in schools is difficult and stressful, and also immensely rewarding. But if you’re not confident that you’re in the right place when you’re teaching…you’re probably not.

2. They Have Life Experience

Having some life experience outside the classroom and outside the realm of education is invaluable for putting learning into context and keeping school activities in perspective. Teachers who have travelled, worked in other fields, played high level sports or enjoyed any number of other life experiences bring to the profession outlooks other than “teacher”. From understanding the critical importance of collaboration and teamwork, to being able to answer that ageless senior math question “when are we going to use this?”, educators who have spent significant time and energy on alternate pursuits come to the profession with a deep understanding of where school fits into the bigger picture of life.

3. They Understand Each Student’s Motivation

Just as each student has a different set of interests, every student will have a correspondingly different set of motivators. Many (or most) students will be able to reconcile their own outlook and ambitions with what’s happening in the class and take motivation from that relationship.  Unfortunately some students will rely simply on external motivators, but worse, we’ve all run into students who really can’t find a relationship between what makes them tick and what’s happening in the classroom around them.

These students run the risk of disengaging altogether. This is where the master teacher knows each of her students and helps them to contextualize the work they’re doing to allow the student to make a connection with something in his realm of interest. Teachers who can’t help students make this connection need to rethink what’s going on. After all, what IS the point of work in which a student finds no interest and for which he can make no connection?

woodleywonderworks544. They’re People, Not Heroes.

Yes, all teachers are heroes. Now let’s move beyond the platitude to what this really means.  Some teachers still have trouble showing any sort of vulnerability of fallibility. These teachers will expend immense amounts of energy hiding the fact they’re frustrated at something, that they’re upset or perhaps even angry.  Why?  Other teachers get tied into logical knots to avoid admitting “I have no idea what the answer to your question is.” But teachers who genuinely connect with students are the ones who aren’t afraid to show emotions in class, who can admit that they aren’t in fact the repository of all knowledge.

Of course nobody want to be a wallowing, blubbering mess in class, but what better way to teach empathy than to give the students someone to empathize with when we’re having a bad day? What better way to foster collaboration and to teach that it’s okay not to know something than to say “I don’t know, let’s find that out!”?

5.  They’re Technologically Capable

Let’s not belabour this point, after all, plenty of ink (or pixels as the case may be!) has already been spilled on this topic. As time passes, the statement “But I’m not very good with _________.”(fill in the blank with any number of technological devices) is sounding ever more like “But I’m not very good with a telephone.”

The only time the sentiment above is acceptable is if it’s followed immediately by “…but I’m very willing to learn!” After all, we wouldn’t accept such weak rationalizations from students regarding their work. In 2013, as a profession, we lose credibility every time we allow excuses like this to go unchallenged. Enough said.

6. They Model Risk Taking

We encourage our students to be risk takers, we’d all like to be risk takers, but let’s be honest, the nature of the beast is that many teachers are not naturally risk takers.  This point goes hand in hand with showing vulnerability, the teacher who’s willing to go out on a limb, to try something new, to be “wacky” in the name of pedagogy earns the respect of students, even if the snickers seem to say something different.

No matter the success or failure of the risk taken, the experience will certainly be memorable for the kids in that class, and isn’t that what we’re aiming for?  After all, as the old adage goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

7. They Focus On Important Stuff

Whether it’s worrying about who’s late to class, collecting every little piece of work in order to “gather marks” or spending too much time lecturing to the class in order to “cover the material”, there’s no shortage of ways to distract teachers from what’s important.  Strong teachers know that things like chronic tardiness or skipping class are usually symptoms of larger issues and as such, spending precious time and energy trying to “fix” the issue almost never works.  That’s what administrators and counselors are for.

They also understand that efficient and effective assessment means eliminating busy work while giving targeted, meaningful feedback and that engaging the students, connecting the material to their interests and passions, is the surest way to maximize learning. There’s plenty of minutiae and enough CYA (Cover Your…) in education to easily get sidetracked, strong teachers keep their focus on what’s important.

8. They Don’t Worry Too Much About What Administrators Think

This trait is tied in with many of the others listed above. Strong teachers do their job without worrying too much about “what the principal will think”.  They’ll take risks, their classes may be noisy, or messy, or both.  Their activities may end up breaking something (usually the rules) in order to spark excitement or engagement.

They understand that learning is not a neat and tidy activity and that adhering too closely to rules and routines can drain from students the natural curiosity, spontaneity and passion that they bring to school.  Worrying about what the boss may think can be draining and restrictive in any job, teaching is no exception.

In fact, the best teachers live by the code “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.”

Stop Penalizing Boys for Not Being Able to Sit Still at School

1 07 2013

Instead, help them channel their energy into productive tasks.

Jun 18 2013, 2:08 PM ET

Library of Congress

This year’s end-of-year paper purge in my middle school office revealed a startling pattern in my teaching practices: I discipline boys far more often than I discipline girls. Flipping through the pink and yellow slips–my school’s system for communicating errant behavior to students, advisors, and parents–I found that I gave out nearly twice as many of these warnings to boys than I did to girls, and of the slips I handed out to boys, all but one was for disruptive classroom behavior.

The most frustrating moments I have had this year stemmed from these battles over–and for–my male students’ attention. This spring, as the grass greened up on the soccer fields and the New Hampshire air finally rose above freezing, the boys and I engaged in a pitched battle of wills over their intellectual and emotional engagement in my Latin and English classes, a battle we both lost in the end.

Something is rotten in the state of boys’ education, and I can’t help but suspect that the pattern I have seen in my classroom may have something to do with a collective failure to adequately educate boys. The statistics are grim.  According to the book Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys: Strategies That Work and Why, boys are kept back in schools at twice the rate of girls. Boys get expelled from preschool nearly five times more often than girls. Boys are diagnosed with learning disorders and attention problems at nearly four times the rate of girls. They do less homework and get a greater proportion of the low grades. Boys are more likely to drop out of school, and make up only 43 percent of college students. Furthermore, boys are nearly three times as likely as girls to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Considering 11 percent of U.S. children–6.4 million in all–have been diagnosed with a ADHD, that’s a lot of boys bouncing around U.S. classrooms.

A study released last year in the Journal of Human Resources confirms my suspicions. It seems that behavior plays a significant role in teachers’ grading practices, and consequently, boys receive lower grades from their teachers than testing would have predicted. The authors of this study conclude that teacher bias regarding behavior, rather than academic performance, penalizes boys as early as kindergarten. On average, boys receive lower behavioral assessment scores from teachers, and those scores affect teachers’ overall perceptions of boys’ intelligence and achievement.

While I love teaching boys, many of my colleagues do not, particularly during the hormone-soaked, energetic, and distracted middle- and high-school years. Teachers and school administrators lament that boys are too fidgety, too hyperactive, too disruptive, derailing the educational process for everyone while sabotaging their own intellectual development.

Peek into most American classrooms and you will see desks in rows, teachers pleading with students to stay in their seats and refrain from talking to their neighbors. Marks for good behavior are rewarded to the students who are proficient at sitting still for long periods of time. Many boys do not have this skill.

In an attempt to get at what actually works for boys in education, Dr. Michael Reichert and Dr. Richard Hawley, in partnership with the International Boys’ School Coalition, launched a study called Teaching Boys: A Global Study of Effective Practices, published in 2009. The study looked at boys in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, in schools of varying size, both private and public, that enroll a wide range of boys of disparate races and income levels.

The authors asked teachers and students to “narrate clearly and objectively an instructional activity that is especially, perhaps unusually, effective in heightening boys’ learning.” The responses–2,500 in all–revealed eight categories of instruction that succeeded in teaching boys. The most effective lessons included more than one of these elements:

  • Lessons that result in an end product–a booklet, a catapult, a poem, or a comic strip, for example.
  • Lessons that are structured as competitive games.
  • Lessons requiring motor activity.
  • Lessons requiring boys to assume responsibility for the learning of others.
  • Lessons that require boys to address open questions or unsolved problems.
  • Lessons that require a combination of competition and teamwork.
  • Lessons that focus on independent, personal discovery and realization.
  • Lessons that introduce drama in the form of novelty or surprise.

So what might a great lesson for boys look like? Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys is full of examples, but here’s one I want to try next time I need to help my students review information, particularly a mass of related ideas. Split the class into groups of four and spread them around the room. Each team will need paper and pencils. At the front of the room, place copies of a document including all of the material that has been taught in some sort of graphical form–a spider diagram, for example. Then tell the students that one person from each group may come up to the front of the classroom and look at the document for thirty seconds. When those thirty seconds are up, they return to their group and write down what they remember in an attempt to re-create the original document in its entirety. The students rotate through the process until the group has pieced the original document back together as a team, from memory. These end products may be “graded” by other teams, and as a final exercise, each student can be required to return to his desk and re-create the document on his own.

Rather than penalize the boys’ relatively higher energy and competitive drive, the most effective way to teach boys is to take advantage of that high energy, curiosity, and thirst for competition. While Reichert and Hawley’s research was conducted in all-boys schools, these lessons can be used in all classrooms, with both boys and girls.

Teachers have grown accustomed to the traditional classroom model: orderly classrooms made up of ruler-straight rows of compliant students. It’s neat and predictable. But unless teachers stop to consider whether these traditional methods are working for both girls and boys, we will continue to give boys the short end of the educational stick. According to Reichert and Hawley, ” Doing better by all children includes doing better by boys,” and

Whatever dissonance, confusion, and conflict may hover in the air as stakeholders assert new and competing claims about the nature and needs of boys and girls and the essential or trivial differences between them with respect to how they learn and should be taught, few could reasonably argue with the proposition that many boys are not thriving in school. Nor could one possibly argue there is no room to reason or improve.

Educators should strive to teach all children, both girls and boys by acknowledging, rather than dismissing, their particular and distinctive educational needs. As Richard Melvoin, headmaster at Belmont Hill School in Massachusetts, wrote, “To provide rights and opportunities to girls is important; to call for the diminution of males, to decry their ‘toxicity’ as [Richard Hawley] has put it so poignantly, has not served boys and girls–or men and women–well… May we all find ways of understanding even better this complex ‘piece of work’ called man.”

Helping Students Improve in Executive Function Skills

1 07 2013

Executive Function Disorders

Published on DyslexiaHelp at the University of Michigan (

 What happens when students don’t have good executive functioning skills?

Your friend Theresa stops over. She’s not on your to-do lists or your calendar, but you let her in nonetheless and consequently spend thirty minutes talking to her which stops you from completing your reading assignment.  Before she leaves you get an instant message from another friend to stop by on your way home from school tomorrow to pick up a pair of gloves you left there yesterday.  You acknowledge back “OK” while you’re still talking to Theresa.  You ask Theresa to repeat what she said and you forget about the reading assignment that was on your calendar to do in this time frame. And what was it that your mother told you to pick up? Milk? Your clothes from your room?  Oh well, she will tell you again so it doesn’t matter. Theresa leaves and you have long forgotten about the gloves. You decide to play a video game and wait for your Mom to come home to tell you what to do next. Executive function (in this student’s case-Mom) is what gets us down to business when we’d rather just hang out.

For this student “Mom” acts as the executive function command center. She commands the actions that provide organization, remembers the details, makes sure that projects start and finish on time, helps to sequentially go from one assignment or play date to the next, and remembers the details. When this student is left on her own, life may become chaotic, assignments may be slow to start or never start at all, deadlines may be consistently pushed back or never met at all, and important details missed or overlooked.  In today’s increasingly chaotic world, executive functions are essential to smoothly function and get tasks done.

Located in the frontal lobes of the brain, executive functions (EF) typically begin to develop in early childhood as the prefrontal cortex develops, then continue through adolescence into young adulthood.  Parallel to the gradual development of EF, parents, teachers, and others in a child’s environment gradually escalate their expectations for the child to exercise an increasing measure of self-management, ranging from the simple tasks of dressing and self-care gradually to more complex responsibilities, e.g., managing multiple courses of study in high school or driving a motor vehicle. Like the student above, sometimes parents intervene so much to help their adolescents stay organized and on task that EF impairments are masked until the teen moves away from home, possibly to attend college or begin a job. Then, when she enters a situation where parental scaffolding is unavailable, she may experience much difficulty.

A collage of cognitive activities, EF encompasses the ability to design actions towards a goal, handle information flexibly, realize the ramifications of behavior, and make reasonable inferences based upon limited information. They are detailed functions of logic, strategy, planning, problem solving, and reasoning. There is no planning for the future without good EF planning skills.

Impairment of any or all of these EF skills may be present in spite of strong intellectual skills and unaffected language capacity.  They are characterized by the following skills:

  • Difficulty with planning and organization
  • Trouble identifying what needs to be done
  • Problems determining the sequence of accomplishment
  • Difficulty carrying out the steps in an orderly way
  • Difficulty beginning tasks
  • Problems maintaining attention
  • Trouble evaluating how one is doing on a task
  • Difficulty taking feedback or suggestions

 Four subtypes of EF

According to Levine (1994), there are four subtypes of EF:

  • Material-spatial disorganization: This prevents students from dealing effectively with the equipment needed to be efficient in school. This is seen in such behaviors as losing things, creating messes among belongings, and not bringing home or returning assignments in a timely way.
  • Temporal-sequential disorganization: In this case, students display confusion about time and the sequencing of tasks, such as being late, procrastinating; or having trouble allocating time, estimating how long a task will take to complete, or knowing the order of steps needed to complete a task.
  • Transitional disorganization: This involves difficulty shifting gears smoothly and results in rushing from one activity to the next, having difficulty settling down to work, or being slow in preparing to leave home for school in the mornings.
  • Prospective retrieval disorganization: This involves the inability to remember to do something that had been planned in advance, such as forgetting the deadline of a project until the night before or failing to follow through on a promise to finish a task.

Ways to help students develop EF

First and most importantly, the student needs to understand how she thinks (metacognitive processes) and gain knowledge about strategies. In doing so, she will learn that there is more than one right way to accomplish a task, be able to identify her mistakes and what to do to correct them, and how to evaluate her progress.

Time management – The ability to manage time includes the following: estimating the amount of time a task will take to complete, setting and following a schedule, completion of tasks on schedule, and the ability to modify or change the schedule as needed.

There are several options for time management – but most of all it is important to find a system that a student will use.  Time management can be broken down into four divisions:

  1. Time estimation – how long will a task take
  2. Time schedules – generating an accurate and realistic time
  3. Completion of scheduled activities – ability to execute tasks within time allotment
  4. Alterations – ability to modify schedule

Establish routines

Time management can be facilitated by establishing routines throughout the day. Routines help to establish inner time clocks and can be facilitated initially by posting lists of sequential steps. It is important that the student be involved in developing the lists and discussing the time estimation of each sequence along with possible alterations that may need to occur, for example, on weekends.

It’s helpful to teach students the acronym CLASH to do daily:

Check your calendar or planner to see what is planned. This may include checking for assignments or tests for the next day to see if there is anything special to bring from home. If working, it may include checking for upcoming tasks and deadlines. It is helpful to make a plan utilizing a checklist before beginning tasks/assignments.  This checklist should include: estimating how long each task/assignment may take, setting priorities, collecting materials, setting a timer, doing the task, collecting next materials, resetting time, and placing the completed assignments in one’s backpack/briefcase.

List the items you need for the next day the night before:

  • On a piece of paper or in your cell phone, list all the things you will need for all of your classes/work the next day.
  • Make sure you remember to bring any special forms that have to be signed by your parents or may need your attention if at work.
  • Make sure that you bring home all the books/ materials you need to look over each night.
  • Make sure that you have your notebooks, folders, or binder that you brought home with you.
  • Recharge your cell phone so it works the next day.

Always gather the materials from you checklist (refer to checklist) and put them in your book bag/briefcase:

  • Gather everything that you need the night before and put the things in your book bag/ briefcase.
  • Refer to the materials checklist to help you stay organized!
  • Don’t wait until the morning, because you may be rushed and forget to check.

Set your book bag/ briefcase and planner (cell phone) by the door.

Have a list with you of what materials you need before each class/meeting and look at this list before you go:

  • At the beginning of the day, write a list on a sticky note of what you will need for each class/meeting and stick it on the inside of your locker or on your desk.  If you have a dry-erase board on your locker or desk then use that. Use this method only if you go to your locker between each of your classes.
  • As you take the materials for each class/meeting, pull off the sticky note or erase the item from the dry-erase board.


Students need to learn how to develop and use organizers. These external systems include calendars, to- do lists, daily logs, and checklists.  These can be in paper form or by cell phone, iPad, or other technology devices.  It may be best to initially start with both systems (paper and tech), depending on the age of the student, but in today’s world technology is often the preferable method for organizers and having two systems can be difficult to maintain.  It is important to initially assist students in developing their schedules.  They may especially need assistance in developing forethought to plan to start a task hours or sometimes even days before the task is due.  Also, developing a time estimation worksheet can help students visualize how many hours they have in a day and began to estimate how long certain tasks may take. A student with dyslexia who is aware of how many words she reads a minute may be able to estimate approximate reading times needed for longer assignments or for the time she would want to spend summarizing an article after reading it.

There are many ways that students can make use of the features available on their cell phones to benefit time management and study skills.  For example, online to-do lists such as Remember the Milk [1] can send text alerts (or IM or email) reminding students of an upcoming appointment, assignment, or project. (Unless the students have unlimited text messaging plans, it is important to discuss texting charges and how using these services can affect their cell phone bills.)

If the students’ phones are equipped with cameras (as most phones now are), they can use them to snap photos of the whiteboard/blackboard after class to make sure they don’t miss notes or an assignment. Photos may also serve as a helpful visual reminder of what needs to be done (i.e., create a photo series of packing up homework, lunch, and other typically forgotten items).

Students can use text messaging, such as Google SMS [2], to get definitions, facts, weather, and conversions sent directly to their phones. As with Google searches, if a student spells a word incorrectly, Google SMS will generally prompt with “Did you mean…?” and provide both the correct spelling and the related information.

Finally, many companies are capitalizing on powerful new cell phones and creating programs [3] for sending flashcards [4] and study materials [5] directly to your phone or iPod [6]. Students can browse flashcards created by others or create their own and study wherever they are. The use of color coding is an effective organizing strategy.  For example, a routine can be established in class (e.g., green for main idea, red for details in reading, blue for essential information in math word problems, etc.) that students can integrate into their own note-taking.

Prioritize and Be Flexible

Once events are scheduled, to-do lists established, and the time necessary to complete events are charted, the next step is to learn to prioritize. What is pressing vs. what could be moved forward to complete another day?  This skill helps to not drop tasks that may not get completed due to interruptions, such as a friend stopping over.  The ability to be flexible is an important skill to learn to manage.  Having other options for completing or rescheduling tasks if such events occur allows for preparation of the unexpected.


In Aldous Huxley’s book Island, trained myna birds fly around frequently squawking, “Here and now, here and now!”  The author wisely predicted the necessity of having reminders to pay attention, to stay in the moment. In today’s world there is much to absorb and a great deal of information to process every day. Each day calls to attention detailed facts and complex concepts, family members and friends, projects at work or at school, news items, planning meals, managing the instructions and assignments of several classes or work tasks.  It’s no wonder we are sometimes not aware of what is going on right in front of us!  Students with EF struggle to determine the most important information to pay attention to and then use that information as needed.  Developing appropriate levels of alertness for attending to a lecture, reading a text book, writing a report, or solving mathematical problems are essential and necessary skills.  Students who effectively control their alertness are able to concentrate without becoming mentally fatigued (especially when sitting still and/or listening for long periods of time) and to pay attention without feeling excessively “bored” or “tired.”

Here are some tips for increasing attention:

  • Get enough sleep at night – Getting adequate amounts of sleep enables a student to be fully awake and have the mental energy to learn and perform in school. Students who get adequate periods of true sleep fall and stay asleep at night with few, if any, problems.  Going to bed at the same time each night and establishing a bed-time routine, starting at dinner or just after dinner will assist in maintaining appropriate levels of alertness throughout the day.
  • Develop a state of alertness or readiness for action, similar to getting ready for a kickoff at a football game.  Help students do this through the acronym SET. Sit straight, Eyes on teacher, Think about words being said and place an external focus on others to listen to them.
  • Learn to develop internal attention – metacognition? How is it going? Am I on track?
  • Minimize any distractions such as outside noise, being hungry, thinking about what you need to do in the future.
  • Create a Picture and MAKE IT VISUAL!! Visual memories are more effective and are remembered longer!
    • Read the STOP signs and Read the Room
    • Space – Where is it? What are the parts to that space?
    • Time – What time is it now?  What usually happens at this time?  What is coming up?  The task/activity I am doing now, when does it need to be done by? How much time do I have?  How long will it take? What can reasonably be accomplished in this amount of time?  What is the usual sequence that I do in that amount of time? What is the pace of activity? Can I dilly-dally or do I need to rush?
    • Objects – What materials are in front of me?  What materials do I still need?  Anything I need to practice?
    • People – Who is around?  Who do I need? What are they doing?  What is their pace?  What is their mood?  What is coming up for them?
  • Using highlighters, and/or graphics can help to draw attention to important information.
  • Examine social relationships in the same way as a new learning situation. Talk aloud about what to attend to in social interactions, e.g., which are most important when forming friendships, dating relationships.
  • Take frequent breaks during the day and vary the length of work periods.  Use stretching and walking as ways to revitalize your body, getting the blood flowing more evenly throughout the body.  Use quiet time to rejuvenate mental energy.
  • Adjust seating.  Sitting in front of a classroom can facilitate attention and keep distractions from other students to a minimum.
  • Become aware of your periods of lower energy; keep a diary or a log of the times during the day when this occurs.  Plan on having a healthy energy snack in the afternoon.
  • Learn to use textbooks efficiently, for example: how to use the table of contents and the index, how to use the questions at the end of the chapter to guide reading, and how to preview text before reading a chapter (by skimming for key words, dates, and names, looking at pictures for clues to meaning, etc.).
  • Provide assistance when mental effort wanes. For example, work together with others as mental energy buddies, or provide jump-starts such as starting one or more math problems, reading the first passage of a text, etc.
  • Use special devices, e.g., calculators, word processors, or tape recorders that help stretch mental effort during periods of high output.
  • Use a word processing program to develop templates for later use, e.g., a template for getting my homework done, for solving a math word problem, for asking for help in class, etc. Learn to self-monitor your work by evaluating the quality of planning and performance throughout a task.
  • Practice making predictions while learning. For example, use prediction charts in reading to help organize predictions and maintain them for later reflection, use story starter activities in writing to contribute the rest of a story based on the beginning, use historical events in social studies to make predictions before learning the actual outcomes, or estimate answers to math problems and science experiments before doing the actual solving.
  • Self-monitoring after a task allows a student to think about the effectiveness of a strategy based on a particular outcome, for example thinking about how the amount of studying or planning relates to a high or low grade received on a test.


There are an abundance of terms used to describe memory, such as long term, short term, episodic, sensory, tactile, active, and verbal. It is important to have appropriate testing that will help to simplify and focus what type of memory difficulties a student may be experiencing. Students who experience difficulties with memory encounter extreme challenges with learning and with reading.  Sometimes what appears to be a memory problem may actually be a reduction in attention, poor planning, and other organizational challenges.

Memory can be like an office.  On the desk is immediate or active memory. This is the memory that allows a student to read an assignment and hold on to the information from one paragraph to another or to complete the multiple steps required for a math problem.   In the to do basket are short term memory items, these are items to do next, they are not in front currently, but they will need attention soon.  In the file cabinet is long term memory.  These are items that will need attention in the near future, but can be stored away for now.

To properly encode a memory, the first step is to pay attention. It is impossible to pay attention to everything so most of what is encountered every day is simply filtered out, and only a few stimuli pass into conscious awareness. What scientists aren’t sure about is whether stimuli are screened out during the sensory input stage or only after the brain processes its significance. What we do know is that paying attention to information may be the most important factor in how much of it is actually remembered.

Important information is gradually transferred from short-term memory into long-term memory. The more the information is repeated or used, the more likely it is to eventually end up in long-term memory, or to be “retained.” (That’s why studying helps people perform better on tests.) Unlike sensory and short-term memory, which are limited and decay rapidly, long-term memory can store unlimited amounts of information indefinitely.

People tend to more easily store material on subjects that they already know something about, since the information has more meaning to them and can be mentally connected to related information that is already stored in their long-term memory. That’s why someone who has an average memory may be able to remember a greater depth of information about one particular subject.

Here are some tips for increasing memory:

  • Explicitly and frequently connect reading material to a student’s lives and daily experiences.
  • Preview the highest priority points to glean from reading material, such as those likely to be discussed in class or asked about on a test.
  • Coach students to use strategies for storing information, such as mental imagery (like associating a top hat with President Lincoln), acronyms (like HOMES for the Great Lakes), acrostic elaboration (like “King Philips Court…” for Kingdom-Phylum-Class), and rhyming (like “i” before “e” except after “c”). Such strategies can be used to prompt students to retrieve information during presentations and interactions.
  • Provide extra instruction and practice regarding the multiple letter patterns (such as “k,””c,” “ck,” “ch,” “que”) that can be linked with a particular sound (like /k/).
  • Emphasize word families (like take, bake, rake, fake, etc.) to consolidate common letter patterns (such as –ake) and vary words with prefixes and suffixes (like taking, baking, raking, faking, etc.)
  • Nonsense words (such as “bik”) can bolster sound-symbol pairs in long-term memory because they have to be sounded out rather than identified as sight words; students can practice reading nonsense words or even develop their own.
  • Show students how to make a flowchart that breaks down a procedure into its component parts.
  • Ask students to explain the steps of a procedure orally and in writing.
  • Use acronyms or phrases to improve storage of procedural sequences, such as PEMDAS or “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” for the order of operations: Parenthesis, Exponents, Multiplication/Division, Add/Subtract.
  • All students need to understand how their memory works and identify their particular profiles of memory strengths and weaknesses (metamemory).
  • Information on any topic should be presented to students in a variety of formats including spatial, linguistic and sequential. For example, if students are presented with an outline, it may be given in the traditional sequential way as well as with using a strategy called “mind mapping”. Mind mapping is a spatial/configurational format while the traditional way in which students are instructed is a linear/sequential format.
  • Students who have difficulty with short-term memory registration and/or working memory may need directions repeated to them. As they get older, they will need to write directions down to help them remember them.
  • When students have difficulty remembering what they have read, they should be taught to paraphrase (recode information) as they read and to take notes in the margins, underline, highlight and/or make notes on a Post-It. If they made notes on a Post-It, they can place the Post-It on paper and have a summary of what they have read.
  • Note taking is an activity that may help students register information in memory as well as to consolidate it. Note taking is a skill that should be taught to all students. Students with handwriting problems may have a difficult time with this task, however, and may need alternative strategies.
  • Students who have working memory problems may need to use a calculator to solve multiple step math problems. Also when completing a writing assignment, they should use a “staging” procedure that allows them to focus on one aspect of writing at a time. With this procedure, they would first generate ideas, then organize them, and finally attend to spelling and mechanical and grammatical rules. Students should also write the topic and any key ideas they have down and refer to these when writing their assignment.
  • It may be helpful for students to review material right before going to sleep at night. Research has shown that information studied this way is better remembered. Any task that is performed after reviewing and prior to sleeping interferes with consolidation of information in memory.
  • All students would benefit from self-testing. They should identify the important information, formulate test questions, and then answer them. This is also a useful exercise to perform with a study buddy.
  • When students need to remember a series of steps or events, it may be helpful for them to draw diagrams or flow charts of the steps/events.
  • Paired associations as well as most other information is remembered better when it is rehearsed using multiple sensory modalities. For example, a student who is trying to remember basic math facts would walk a number line as they were saying the math facts.
  • Many students are very adept with computers and there are a number of software programs such as “Reading Blaster” and “Math Blaster” that can help a student retain basic skills.
  • Students should be taught the necessity of “overlearning” new information. Often they practice only until they are able to perform one error-free repetition of the material.
  • Students should be required to identify the particular memory strategies that they will use for specific situations. For example, they should be asked how they plan on remembering all of the states and their capitals in the United States.

Apps for EF

Evernote [7]

Evernote – Free [7]

Remember everything! Forget writing on your hand or sticky notes. Use your iPhone or iPad to take a picture, record a note, send a PDF, or just jot a note.

Write Pad [8]

Write Pad – $9.99 [8]

Write Pad allows you a variety of options: handwriting recognition, write your note with your finger or a stylus, check spelling, executive shorthand, change of character recognition.  It is $9.99, but worth every cent for those who are not familiar with keyboarding or find type too difficult.

Notability [9]

Notability – $0.99 [10]

Notability is a note-taking app that allows you to type, insert a figure, and insert a web clip or a picture. It also allows you to record a teacher’s lecture.

Nudge [11]

Nudge – $0.99 [11]

Nudge is a quick note to remember something for tomorrow: bring pens to school, tie-dying bring in a white shirt. It is set, and until you shut it off, it nudges you.

CourseNotes [12]

CourseNotes – $4.99-$9.99 [12]

Students: CourseNotes color codes your notebooks and adds teachers. Take notes during your classes and organize them by class and subject. Review your notes later, and search through multiple classes and notes at once. Also, keep To-Do lists and track assignments by providing due dates.

iAnnotate [13]

iAnnotate – $9.99 [13]

Teachers: iAnnotate allows you to receive PDF files from your students or an article you are reading. It lets you take notes or highlight an important fact, and of course, lets you assist a student in corrections.  It is a fabulous app to keep your notes organized, with the ability to make corrections or add notes.

Websites for EF

All Kinds of Minds [14] The All Kinds of Minds website provides resources to help parents, educators, and clinicians understand why a child is struggling in school and how to help each child become a more successful learner. The Web site provides a free monthly newsletter, articles by Dr. Mel Levine and others, case studies, discussion groups, a Learning Base of strategies, and much more.

The Hallowell Center [15] This website describes the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health which specializes in the understanding and managing of attention deficits, worry/anxiety, and child and adult learning difficulties. The site offers informative articles and materials by Dr. Ned Hallowell.

HAPPYneuron [16] These brain games help you improve your memory and attention through award-winning, innovative and fun cognitive training exercises.

The Hello Friend/Ennis William Cosby Foundation [17] This website is dedicated to helping you learn about Ennis William Cosby, about the foundation established in his memory, and about learning and learning differences. The site offers resources and information on how parents and teachers can help individuals with learning differences. Information is also available about the new video “Ennis’ Gift: A film about learning differences.”

Family Education [18] Parents find practical guidance, grade-specific information about their children’s school experience, strategies to get involved with their children’s learning, free email newsletters, and fun and entertaining family activities.

Kids Health [19] Created by The Nemours Foundation’s Center for Children’s Health Media, Kids Health provides families with accurate, up-to-date, and jargon-free health information they can use. Kids Health has separate areas for kids, teens, and parents – each with its own design, age-appropriate content, and tone. There are literally thousands of in-depth features, articles, animations, games, and resources – all original and all developed by experts in the health of children and teens.

Misunderstood Minds [20]  PBS has created a companion Web site to the Misunderstood Minds special on learning differences. Within the site are stories from the show and information and resources for parents.

Read•Write•Think [21]  Read•Write•Think is a partnership between the International Reading Association (IRA), the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and the MCI Foundation to provide educators and students with access to the highest quality practices and resources in reading and language arts instruction through free, Internet-based content.

PBS Parents [22] The PBS Parents Guides address important aspects of your child’s early years such as school readiness and social and emotional development. You can also find information about your children’s favorite PBS KIDS programs: schedules for your local area, educational activities related to the programs, and explanations of educational goals.

Schwab Learning [23] is a “parent’s guide to helping kids with learning difficulties” that emphasizes useful information and practical strategies for children in kindergarten through high school. With over 350 research based articles, resources, message boards, email newsletter and more, parents will find the guidance and support they need.


Cherkes-Julkowski, M., Sharp, S., & Stolzenberg, J. (1997). Rethinking Attention Deficit Disorders. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Brookline Books.

Dornbush, M. P., & Pruitt, S. K. (1995). Teaching the Tiger: A Handbook for Individuals Involved in the Education of Students with Attention Deficit Disorders, Tourette syndrome or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Duarte, California: Hope Press.

Fowler, M., Barkley, R., Reeve, R., & Zentall, S. (1992). CH.A.D.D. Educators Manual: An In-Depth Look at Attention Deficit Disorders from an Educational Perspective: A Project of the CH.A.D.D. National Education Committee. Plantation, Florida: CH.A.D.D.

Hammeken, P. A. (1995). Inclusion: 450 Strategies for Success – A practical guide for all educators who teach students with disabilities. Minnetonka, Minnesota: Peytral Publications.

Jensen, E. (1998). Teaching with the brain in mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Levine, M. D. (1994). Educational Care. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Educators Publishing Service.

Levine, M. D. (1998). Developmental Variation and Learning Disorders. (2 ed.). Cambridge, MA: Educators Publishing Service.

Markel, G., & Greenbaum, J. (1996). Performance Breakthroughs for Adolescents with Learning Disabilities or ADD. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

Parker, H. C. (1992). The ADD Hyperactivity Handbook for Schools: Effective Strategies for Identifying and Teaching ADD Students in Elementary and Secondary Schools. Plantation, Florida: Impact Publications.

Rief, S. F. (1993). How To Reach and Teach ADD/ADHD Children: Practical Techniques, Strategies, and Interventions for Helping Children with Attention Problems and Hyperactivity. West Nyack, New York: Center for Applied Research in Education.

Strichart, S.S., Mangrum, C.T., & Lannuzzi, P. (1998). Teaching Study Strategies to Students with Learning Disabilities, Attention Deficit Disorders, or Special Needs. (2ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Cooper, L. A., & Lang, J. M. (1996). Imagery and visual spatial representations. In E. L. Bjork & R. A. Bjork (eds), Handbook of perception and cognition. San Diego: Academic Press.

Gaddes, W. H., & Edgell, D. (1994). Learning disabilities and brain function: A neuropsychological approach. (3rd edition). New York: Springer-Verlag.

Kail, R. & Hall, L. (2001). Distinguishing short-term memory from working memory. Memory and Cognition, 29, 1-9.

Levine, M. D. (1998). Developmental variation and learning disorders. Cambridge and Toronto: Educators Publishing Services, Inc.

Links: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] SchwabLearning

Chess and Math? Improving math skills one move at a time

30 06 2013

From Deb Russell

First of all, Math provides the building blocks and foundation that children will need throughout their lives. If you think that the basics are adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing – think again! Today, we live in an information age where it’s reported that information is doubling at a rate less than every two years. The basic skills need to function in the workplace today are decision making, problem solving, critical thinking and deductive and inductive reasoning along with the ability to make judgements and good estimates. We haven’t loved math but we’ve certainly loved our games. That’s when Chess comes into the picture.

Chess is a game that requires problem solving. Math requires problem solving, it makes good sense then to become a good problem solver means you’ll do better in math. Chess (and other games) require a mental workout, thinking ahead, planning, being systematic, and determining the outcomes of certain moves. Chess moves can’t be memorized, weakness in math often stems from an over emphasis on memory skills instead of thinking skills. Research studies have indicated that students playing chess have improved problem solving skills over the group that have not been involved in the playing of chess. Ollie LaFreniere, the Washington Chess Federation’s statewide Coordinator for Scholastic Chess, said in a Seattle Post-Intelligencer interview on May 31, “Chess is the single most powerful educational tool we have at the moment, and many school administrators are realizing that.” There are also studies that indicate that many students’ social habits improved when playing chess.

The late Faneuil Adams (president of the American Chess Foundation (ACF). believed that chess could enhance learning, especially for the disadvantaged. He with the ACF founded the Chess in Schools Program which initially began in New York’s Harlem School district. Early in the program, the focus was on improving math skills for adolescents through improved critical thinking and problem solving skills. Remarkably “test scores improved by 17.3% for students regularly engaged in chess classes, compared with only 4.56% for children participating in other forms of enriched activities.”

The ACF reports that chess improves a Child’s:

Visual memory

Attention span

Spatial reasoning skills

Capacity to predict and anticipate consequences

Ability to use criteria to drive decision making and evaluate alternatives

Many countries are following suit. In Canada, a growing number of elementary schools have incorporated chess into the regular school curriculum. Looking specifically at Quebec, 10 years ago their math scores were the lowest in the country, Chess became a school subject and now the children in quebec have the highest average math scores in Canada.

Overcoming Math Phobia through Chess

Why is it when we ask the majority of people what they think of math or if they’re good at math, they immediately show a look of distaste? Think of what happens when a group of people are at a restaurant and the bill comes on one check instead of on separate checks. Usually, you’ll hear ‘here, you figure it out, I was never any good at math.’ I’m sure you’ve been in this situation yourself at times. However, do they ever say, here you figure it out – I can’t read. When we take a look at why people don’t like math, we’re told it’s because it makes them feel stupid, or that they just don’t understand it because there are too many rules, formulas and procedures to remember. But, can you think of a situation where there are rules, procedures and such that we enjoy? Games!!! Perhaps if our math instructors treated math like a game, more individuals would excel and would like mathematics. A more favorable attitude in math leads to better performance. Let chess pave the way to better math scores and improved problem solving strategies!

No Ordinary Genius: BBC Captures Richard Feynman’s Legacy

29 06 2013


Explaining the scientific process with chess, or why childlike wonder is key to getting unstuck in science.

As physicists write another inconclusive chapter in the epic hunt for the “God particle” this week, it’s time to revisit one of the scientists whose work shaped modern physics. Richard Feynman, known as the “Great Explainer,” is one of my big intellectual heroes and a Brain Pickings frequenter — from his timeless insights on beauty, honors, and curiosity to his wonderful recent graphic novel biography, among the best science books of 2011 and a fine addition to our favorite masterpieces of graphic nonfiction.

In 1993, five years after Feynman’s death, BBC set out to capture his spirit and his scientific legacy in a fantastic documentary titled Richard Feynman: No Ordinary Genius, part of their excellent Horizon program, which has also brought us such fascinations as the nature of reality, the age-old tension between science and religion, how music works, and what time really is. The film was subsequently adapted into the book No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman, and the documentary is now available on YouTube in its entirety — enjoy.

When Feynman faces a problem, he’s unusually good at going back to being like a child, ignoring what everyone else thinks… He was so unstuck — if something didn’t work, he’d look at it another way.” ~ Marvin Minsky, MIT


At around minute 39, Feynman gives a fantastic analogy-turned-explanation that captures what’s essentially the heart of the scientific process:

In the case of the chess game, the rules become more complicated as you go along, but in the physics, when you discover new things, it looks more simple. It appears, on the whole, to be more complicated because we learn about a greater experience — that is, we learn about more particles and new things — and so the laws look more complicated again. But if you realize all the time, what’s kind of wonderful is as we expand our experience into wilder and wilder regions of experience, every once in a while we have these integrations in which everything is pulled together in a unification, which turns out to be simpler than it looked before.”

Tender and intelligent, the film reveals some of Feynman’s defining qualities: his intense cross-disciplinary curiosity and determination (he taught himself to be a skillful artist, studying drawing like he studied science); his thoughtful, caring character (the anecdote Joan, Feynman’s younger sister, recounts at about 9:04 is just about the most poetic expression of nerd-affection I’ve ever encountered); and, perhaps above all, the remarkable blend of humility and genius that made him able to see error and wrongness as an essential piece of intellectual inquiry and truth itself.

I Believe in You

28 06 2013

I will be posting some motivational letters that appear from I Believe in You edited by Gary Morris published by Blue Mountain Arts.  I hope you find them helpful for you and to give to someone who needs some encouraging motivation.

I Care About You

I may not be the one

with all the answers,

the wisdom, or the power

to make the best decisions in your life.

That power is in your hands,

those decisions are in your heart,

and you’re perfectly capable

of choosing well.

But I am someone who is

always here to listen

and maybe help

those answers appear.

I’m here to wait and hope with you,

to keep you company

and let you know how much I care.

I can’t do everything I wish,

but caring about you

is what I do perfectly.

So I will do what I do best-

care deeply and be here

when you need me.

These are special promises

I can always keep,

and I always will.

– Barbara J. Hall

The Secret to Raising Smart Kids

25 06 2013

Scientific American Mind –  November 28, 2007

Hint: Don’t tell your kids that they are. More than three decades of research shows that a focus on effort—not on intelligence or ability—is key to success in school and in life

By Carol S. Dweck

A brilliant student, Jonathan sailed through grade school. He completed his assignments easily and routinely earned As. Jonathan puzzled over why some of his classmates struggled, and his parents told him he had a special gift. In the seventh grade, however, Jonathan suddenly lost interest in school, refusing to do homework or study for tests. As a consequence, his grades plummeted. His parents tried to boost their son’s confidence by assuring him that he was very smart. But their attempts failed to motivate Jonathan (who is a composite drawn from several children). Schoolwork, their son maintained, was boring and pointless.

Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 30 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.

The result plays out in children like Jonathan, who coast through the early grades under the dangerous notion that no-effort academic achievement defines them as smart or gifted. Such children hold an implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, making striving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart. This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.

Praising children’s innate abilities, as Jonathan’s parents did, reinforces this mind-set, which can also prevent young athletes or people in the workforce and even marriages from living up to their potential. On the other hand, our studies show that teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in school and in life.

The Opportunity of Defeat
I first began to investigate the underpinnings of human motivation—and how people persevere after setbacks—as a psychology graduate student at Yale University in the 1960s. Animal experiments by psychologists Martin Seligman, Steven Maier and Richard Solomon of the University of Pennsylvania had shown that after repeated failures, most animals conclude that a situation is hopeless and beyond their control. After such an experience, the researchers found, an animal often remains passive even when it can affect change—a state they called learned helplessness.

People can learn to be helpless, too, but not everyone reacts to setbacks this way. I wondered: Why do some students give up when they encounter difficulty, whereas others who are no more skilled continue to strive and learn? One answer, I soon discovered, lay in people’s beliefs about why they had failed.

In particular, attributing poor performance to a lack of ability depresses motivation more than does the belief that lack of effort is to blame. In 1972, when I taught a group of elementary and middle school children who displayed helpless behavior in school that a lack of effort (rather than lack of ability) led to their mistakes on math problems, the kids learned to keep trying when the problems got tough. They also solved many of the problems even in the face of difficulty. Another group of helpless children who were simply rewarded for their success on easy problems did not improve their ability to solve hard math problems. These experiments were an early indication that a focus on effort can help resolve helplessness and engender success.

Subsequent studies revealed that the most persistent students do not ruminate about their own failure much at all but instead think of mistakes as problems to be solved. At the University of Illinois in the 1970s I, along with my then graduate student Carol Diener, asked 60 fifth graders to think out loud while they solved very difficult pattern-recognition problems. Some students reacted defensively to mistakes, denigrating their skills with comments such as “I never did have a good rememory,” and their problem-solving strategies deteriorated.

Others, meanwhile, focused on fixing errors and honing their skills. One advised himself: “I should slow down and try to figure this out.” Two schoolchildren were particularly inspiring. One, in the wake of difficulty, pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips and said, “I love a challenge!” The other, also confronting the hard problems, looked up at the experimenter and approvingly declared, “I was hoping this would be informative!” Predictably, the students with this attitude outperformed their cohorts in these studies.

Two Views of Intelligence
Several years later I developed a broader theory of what separates the two general classes of learners—helpless versus mastery-oriented. I realized that these different types of students not only explain their failures differently, but they also hold different “theories” of intelligence. The helpless ones believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that. I call this a “fixed mind-set.” Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so. Like Jonathan, such children shun effort in the belief that having to work hard means they are dumb.

The mastery-oriented children, on the other hand, think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. They want to learn above all else. After all, if you believe that you can expand your intellectual skills, you want to do just that. Because slipups stem from a lack of effort, not ability, they can be remedied by more effort. Challenges are energizing rather than intimidating; they offer opportunities to learn. Students with such a growth mind-set, we predicted, were destined for greater academic success and were quite likely to outperform their counterparts.

We validated these expectations in a study published in early 2007. Psychologists Lisa Blackwell of Columbia University and Kali H. Trzes­niewski of Stanford University and I monitored 373 students for two years during the transition to junior high school, when the work gets more difficult and the grading more stringent, to determine how their mind-sets might affect their math grades. At the beginning of seventh grade, we assessed the students’ mind-sets by asking them to agree or disagree with statements such as “Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t really change.” We then assessed their beliefs about other aspects of learning and looked to see what happened to their grades.

As we had predicted, the students with a growth mind-set felt that learning was a more important goal in school than getting good grades. In addition, they held hard work in high regard, believing that the more you labored at something, the better you would become at it. They understood that even geniuses have to work hard for their great accomplishments. Confronted by a setback such as a disappointing test grade, students with a growth mind-set said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the material.

The students who held a fixed mind-set, however, were concerned about looking smart with little regard for learning. They had negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something was a sign of low ability. They thought that a person with talent or intelligence did not need to work hard to do well. Attributing a bad grade to their own lack of ability, those with a fixed mind-set said that they would study less in the future, try never to take that subject again and consider cheating on future tests.

Such divergent outlooks had a dramatic impact on performance. At the start of junior high, the math achievement test scores of the students with a growth mind-set were comparable to those of students who displayed a fixed mind-set. But as the work became more difficult, the students with a growth mind-set showed greater persistence. As a result, their math grades overtook those of the other students by the end of the first semester—and the gap between the two groups continued to widen during the two years we followed them.

Along with Columbia psychologist Heidi Grant, I found a similar relation between mind-set and achievement in a 2003 study of 128 Columbia freshman premed students who were enrolled in a challenging general chemistry course. Although all the students cared about grades, the ones who earned the best grades were those who placed a high premium on learning rather than on showing that they were smart in chemistry. The focus on learning strategies, effort and persistence paid off for these students.

Confronting Deficiencies
A belief in fixed intelligence also makes people less willing to admit to errors or to confront and remedy their deficiencies in school, at work and in their social relationships. In a study published in 1999 of 168 freshmen entering the University of Hong Kong, where all instruction and coursework are in English, three Hong Kong colleagues and I found that students with a growth mind-set who scored poorly on their English proficiency exam were far more inclined to take a remedial English course than were low-scoring students with a fixed mind-set. The students with a stagnant view of intelligence were presumably unwilling to admit to their deficit and thus passed up the opportunity to correct it.

A fixed mind-set can similarly hamper communication and progress in the workplace by leading managers and employees to discourage or ignore constructive criticism and advice. Research by psychologists Peter Heslin and Don VandeWalle of Southern Methodist University and Gary Latham of the University of Toronto shows that managers who have a fixed mind-set are less likely to seek or welcome feedback from their employees than are managers with a growth mind-set. Presumably, managers with a growth mind-set see themselves as works-in-progress and understand that they need feedback to improve, whereas bosses with a fixed mind-set are more likely to see criticism as reflecting their underlying level of competence. Assuming that other people are not capable of changing either, executives with a fixed mind-set are also less likely to mentor their underlings. But after Heslin, VandeWalle and Latham gave managers a tutorial on the value and principles of the growth mind-set, supervisors became more willing to coach their employees and gave more useful advice.

Mind-set can affect the quality and longevity of personal relationships as well, through people’s willingness—or unwillingness—to deal with difficulties. Those with a fixed mind-set are less likely than those with a growth mind-set to broach problems in their relationships and to try to solve them, according to a 2006 study I conducted with psychologist Lara Kammrath of WilfridLaurierUniversity in Ontario. After all, if you think that human personality traits are more or less fixed, relationship repair seems largely futile. Individuals who believe people can change and grow, however, are more confident that confronting concerns in their relationships will lead to resolutions.

Proper Praise
How do we transmit a growth mind-set to our children? One way is by telling stories about achievements that result from hard work. For instance, talking about math geniuses who were more or less born that way puts students in a fixed mind-set, but descriptions of great mathematicians who fell in love with math and developed amazing skills engenders a growth mind-set, our studies have shown. People also communicate mind-sets through praise. Although many, if not most, parents believe that they should build up a child by telling him  or her how brilliant and talented he or she is, our research suggests that this is misguided.

In studies involving several hundred fifth graders published in 1998, for example, Columbia psychologist Claudia M. Mueller and I gave children questions from a nonverbal IQ test. After the first 10 problems, on which most children did fairly well, we praised them. We praised some of them for their intelligence: “Wow … that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” We commended others for their effort: “Wow … that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.”

We found that intelligence praise encouraged a fixed mind-set more often than did pats on the back for effort. Those congratulated for their intelligence, for example, shied away from a challenging assignment—they wanted an easy one instead—far more often than the kids applauded for their effort. (Most of those lauded for their hard work wanted the difficult problem set from which they would learn.) When we gave everyone hard problems anyway, those praised for being smart became discouraged, doubting their ability. And their scores, even on an easier problem set we gave them afterward, declined as compared with their previous results on equivalent problems. In contrast, students praised for their effort did not lose confidence when faced with the harder questions, and their performance improved markedly on the easier problems that followed.

Making Up Your Mind-set
In addition to encouraging a growth mind-set through praise for effort, parents and teachers can help children by providing explicit instruction regarding the mind as a learning machine. Blackwell, Trzesniewski and I recently designed an eight-session workshop for 91 students whose math grades were declining in their first year of junior high. Forty-eight of the students received instruction in study skills only, whereas the others attended a combination of study skills sessions and classes in which they learned about the growth mind-set and how to apply it to schoolwork.

In the growth mind-set classes, students read and discussed an article entitled “You Can Grow Your Brain.” They were taught that the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with use and that learning prompts neurons in the brain to grow new connections. From such instruction, many students began to see themselves as agents of their own brain development. Students who had been disruptive or bored sat still and took note. One particularly unruly boy looked up during the discussion and said, “You mean I don’t have to be dumb?”

As the semester progressed, the math grades of the kids who learned only study skills continued to decline, whereas those of the students given the growth-mind-set training stopped falling and began to bounce back to their former levels. Despite being unaware that there were two types of instruction, teachers reported noticing significant motivational changes in 27 percent of the children in the growth mind-set workshop as compared with only 9 percent of students in the control group. One teacher wrote: “Your workshop has already had an effect. L [our unruly male student], who never puts in any extra effort and often doesn’t turn in homework on time, actually stayed up late to finish an assignment early so I could review it and give him a chance to revise it. He earned a B+. (He had been getting Cs and lower.)”

Other researchers have replicated our results. Psychologists Catherine Good, then at Columbia, and Joshua Aronson and Michael Inzlicht of New York University reported in 2003 that a growth mind-set workshop raised the math and English achievement test scores of seventh graders. In a 2002 study Aronson, Good (then a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin) and their colleagues found that college students began to enjoy their schoolwork more, value it more highly and get better grades as a result of training that fostered a growth mind-set.

We have now encapsulated such instruction in an interactive computer program called “Brain­ology,” which should be more widely available by mid-2008. Its six modules teach students about the brain—what it does and how to make it work better. In a virtual brain lab, users can click on brain regions to determine their functions or on nerve endings to see how connections form when people learn. Users can also advise virtual students with problems as a way of practicing how to handle schoolwork difficulties; additionally, users keep an online journal of their study practices.

New York City seventh graders who tested a pilot version of Brainology told us that the program had changed their view of learning and how to promote it. One wrote: “My favorite thing from Brainology is the neurons part where when u [sic] learn something there are connections and they keep growing. I always picture them when I’m in school.” A teacher said of the students who used the program: “They offer to practice, study, take notes, or pay attention to ensure that connections will be made.”

Teaching children such information is not just a ploy to get them to study. People do differ in intelligence, talent and ability. And yet research is converging on the conclusion that great accomplishment, and even what we call genius, is typically the result of years of passion and dedication and not something that flows naturally from a gift. Mozart, Edison, Curie, Darwin and Cézanne were not simply born with talent; they cultivated it through tremendous and sustained effort. Similarly, hard work and discipline contribute much more to school achievement than IQ does.

Such lessons apply to almost every human endeavor. For instance, many young athletes value talent more than hard work and have consequently become unteachable. Similarly, many people accomplish little in their jobs without constant praise and encouragement to maintain their motivation. If we foster a growth mind-set in our homes and schools, however, we will give our children the tools to succeed in their pursuits and to become responsible employees and citizens.


The Hardest Job Everyone Thinks They Can Do

25 06 2013

This piece was inspired by a heated discussion () had with a man who believes that teachers have an easy job. Please feel free to share it with others if you agree with the message.

I used to be a molecular biologist. I spent my days culturing viruses. Sometimes, my experiments would fail miserably, and I’d swear to myself in frustration. Acquaintances would ask how my work was going. I’d explain how I was having a difficult time cloning this one gene. I couldn’t seem to figure out the exact recipe to use for my cloning cocktail.

Acquaintances would sigh sympathetically. And they’d say, “I know you’ll figure it out. I have faith in you.”

And then, they’d tilt their heads in a show of respect for my skills….

Today, I’m a high school teacher. I spend my days culturing teenagers. Sometimes, my students get disruptive, and I swear to myself in frustration. Acquaintances ask me how my work is going. I explain how I’m having a difficult time with a certain kid. I can’t seem to get him to pay attention in class.

Acquaintances smirk knowingly. And they say, “well, have you tried making it fun for the kids? That’s how you get through to them, you know?”

And then, they explain to me how I should do my job….

I realize now how little respect teachers get. Teaching is the toughest job everyone who’s never done it thinks they can do. I admit, I was guilty of these delusions myself. When I decided to make the switch from “doing” science to “teaching” science, I found out that I had to go back to school to get a teaching credential.

“What the f—?!?,” I screamed to any friends willing to put up with my griping. “I have a Ph.D.! Why do I need to go back to get a lousy teaching credential?!?”

I was baffled. How could I, with my advanced degree in biology, not be qualified to teach biology?!

Well, those school administrators were a stubborn bunch. I simply couldn’t get a job without a credential. And so, I begrudgingly enrolled in a secondary teaching credential program.

And boy, were my eyes opened. I understand now.

Teaching isn’t just “making it fun” for the kids. Teaching isn’t just academic content.

Teaching is understanding how the human brain processes information and preparing lessons with this understanding in mind.

Teaching is simultaneously instilling in a child the belief that she can accomplish anything she wants while admonishing her for producing shoddy work.

Teaching is understanding both the psychology and the physiology behind the changes the adolescent mind goes through.

Teaching is convincing a defiant teenager that the work he sees no value in does serve a greater purpose in preparing him for the rest of his life.

Teaching is offering a sympathetic ear while maintaining a stern voice.

Teaching is being both a role model and a mentor to someone who may have neither at home, and may not be looking for either.

Teaching is not easy. Teaching is not intuitive. Teaching is not something that anyone can figure out on their own. Education researchers spend lifetimes developing effective new teaching methods. Teaching takes hard work and constant training. I understand now.

Have you ever watched professional athletes and gawked at how easy they make it look? Kobe Bryant weaves through five opposing players, sinking the ball into the basket without even glancing in its direction. Brett Favre spirals a football 100 feet through the air, landing it in the arms of a teammate running at full speed. Does anyone have any delusions that they can do what Kobe and Brett do?

Yet, people have delusions that anyone can do what the typical teacher does on a typical day.

Maybe the problem is tangibility. Shooting a basketball isn’t easy, but it’s easy to measure how good someone is at shooting a basketball. Throwing a football isn’t easy, but it’s easy to measure how good someone is at throwing a football. Similarly, diagnosing illnesses isn’t easy to do, but it’s easy to measure. Winning court cases isn’t easy to do, but it’s easy to measure. Creating and designing technology isn’t easy to do, but it’s easy to measure.

Inspiring kids? Inspiring kids can be downright damned near close to impossible sometimes. And… it’s downright damned near close to impossible to measure. You can’t measure inspiration by a child’s test scores. You can’t measure inspiration by a child’s grades. You measure inspiration 25 years later when that hot-shot doctor, or lawyer, or entrepreneur thanks her fourth-grade teacher for having faith in her and encouraging her to pursue her dreams.

Maybe that’s why teachers get so little respect. It’s hard to respect a skill that is so hard to quantify.

So, maybe you just have to take our word for it. The next time you walk into a classroom, and you see the teacher calmly presiding over a room full of kids, all actively engaged in the lesson, realize that it’s not because the job is easy. It’s because we makeit look easy. And because we work our asses off to make it look easy.

And, yes, we make it fun, too.

SOURCE: Musings on Life and Love

5 Ideas for Cultivating a Sense of Wonder

23 06 2013

By        Associate Editor

cultivate a sense of wonderReverb 10 is an annual end-of-year project  that helps readers reflect on the old year via a series of prompts. One of 2010′s prompts was “How did you cultivate a sense of wonder in your life this year?”

This question made me think about cultivating wonder in our lives all the time, from the old year into the new.

Wonder is a magical word, I think. And it’s a word that needs more exploration. We need to explore wonder more often, because as adults, many of us lose our sense of wonder in life. It gets buried under piles of bills, deadlines, responsibilities and housework.

Maybe you think you’re too old, too mature or too sensible to have a sense of wonder.

According to, wonder means to admire, to be amazed, to be in awe, to marvel. It means something strange or surprising or a remarkable phenomenon.

How often do you marvel at your daily life?


For most of us, it’s a fleeting moment, if at all.

In the movie Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert (Julia Roberts) says “I want to go someplace where I can marvel at something,” so she sets off on a life-changing journey through Italy, India and Indonesia.

Of course, I don’t think you have to go that far to find wonder. (If I did, I’d be broke with tons of credit card debt.) In fact, your living room will do just fine.

Here are some of my ideas for cultivating wonder, whether you’re at home or away.

  1. Watch kids play or do anything. Kids approach life with a sense of wonder. Everything is new and bright. Everything is exciting. We can all take a lesson from observing children, from how excited they get with a new toy to how they smile at the simplest things. Apply some of that wonder to your daily life.
  2. Read about creativity. Lately, I’ve been immersed in the topic of creativity. When I think of being creative, I think of being lighthearted, relaxed and passionate. (Yes, passion can be intense, but to me, it’s more excitement than extreme.) I think of having fun and being free. When we’re preoccupied with the quotidian, we forget that.The creativity books currently on my shelf include Sparks of Genius: The 13 Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein and Creativity Is a Verb: If You’re Alive, You’re Creative by Patti Digh. And, of course, Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life is a classic.But you don’t have to be a writer, a singer, a dancer, poet or a painter to be creative. As Digh writes in her book, “If you’re alive, you’re creative. If you’re alive, you’re an artist.”
  3. Take up photography. You don’t have to buy a fancy-pants camera. Take any camera that you have out for a spin. The quality of the photos really doesn’t matter. Focus on the beauty all around you. I believe that in order to see beauty in ourselves, we must pay attention to the beauty among us. Photographers do an incredible job of finding and capturing the beauty in the smallest of things, in the most mundane of moments, and let’s be honest, in the typically not-so-pretty places. Here are two of my favorite websites to visit for a dose of wonder: 1010 Project and 3191 Miles Apart.
  4. Travel to far-off places. If you can actually afford to do tons of traveling, then great! If not, go to your local library, and check out the section on travel essays. (Though if your library is anything like mine, just go to or your nearest bricks-and-mortar bookstore.)I’m currently reading Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier. The book begins with these lines: “Officially, there is no such place as Siberia. No political or territorial entity has Siberia as its name…During Soviet times, revised maps erased the name entirely, in order to discourage Siberian regionalism.” Now tell me that doesn’t seem at all interesting.OK, maybe it’s just because I’m from Russia.
  5. Learn something. Learning is one of the best ways you can cultivate wonder. You can either dig deeper into topics you’re already familiar with, or take on a totally strange, interesting subject. Right now, I’m also reading the book, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. If you’re not a big reader, watch The History Channel or visit a museum or local landmark.Ask yourself: What topics have I always wanted to learn about? What classes did I want to take in high school or college but didn’t have time to? What topics make me happy?

So how do you cultivate a sense of wonder in your life? Or how do you plan on cultivating it?